Clemson deploys mentors in fight against troubling statistics
CLEMSON — John Rivers said that while he was determined to make it through Clemson University no matter what, his undergraduate experience wouldn’t have been the same without his roommate of three years, Freddy Paige.
“We’ll never go hungry — either he’s got me or I got him,” said Rivers, who is collecting his diploma at Littlejohn Coliseum Thursday.
Rivers and Paige met in a Clemson program that brings together the precious few African-Americans who major in engineering and science. Their friendship — and the program that introduced them — illustrates the university’s unique commitment to fight some troubling statistics.
While African-Americans make up 12 percent of the nation’s population, they account for 5.5 percent of the engineering workforce, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
It’s a national problem that has raised concerns that a significant part of the population could be falling behind in some of the country’s fastest-growing and highest-paying job markets.
Experts have argued that it is vital for the United States to educate more engineers to drive economic growth. President Obama has set a goal to train 10,000 new American engineers a year.
“The U.S. needs every single one of those people, regardless of race,” said Sue Lasser, director of Clemson’s Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention (PEER). “Every one of them is precious.”
Clemson’s efforts to train more African-American engineers are reflected in a ranking this year by the magazine Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
The university graduated 33 African-Americans with engineering degrees in the 2011-12 school year, tying with the University of Central Florida for 16th in the nation, according to the magazine.
Seven of the schools that ranked above Clemson are historically African-American colleges, and one has an enrollment comprised mostly of minorities.
“That’s showing a lot — that Clemson is really a special place for a young, African-American engineer to develop,” said Paige, who graduated with a civil engineering degree in May.
Paige and others give much of the credit for Clemson’s ranking to Lasser and PEER, the program she began 25 years ago.
Lasser said she started the program in 1987 after discovering that Clemson needed a new model to support African-American students.
“We wanted all those people who were quietly drowning,” she said.
Lasser said she found that many African-American students were the first in their families to go to college. While their parents supported them financially and emotionally, students didn’t have anyone to ask about how to navigate college life.
They were on their own to figure out how many hours to take per semester, when to talk to professors and that an infirmary is available when they get sick, she said.
“There was nobody to tell you where to go get your hair cut,” she said. “There was nothing.”
Add any teen’s fear of looking stupid to a minority student’s fear of standing out, “and you have someone who is very reluctant to ask questions,” Lasser said.
Paige, who is from Murrells Inlet, remembers setting foot on campus for the first time when he came for PEER’s Sneak Preview just before his freshman year. He had to catch a ride with a friend and didn’t arrive in Clemson until 10 p.m.
Although he was five hours late, Paige said that Lasser and a student host were still at Clemson House, waiting for him.
“I really felt like it was a family,” he said.
Lasser said that when she first started PEER, African-American juniors and seniors were calling themselves “survivors.”
She found that the students who did make it had someone, often a cousin or friend, who had been to college and could answer basic questions about campus life.
“I just tried to replicate that,” Lasser said.
PEER divides incoming freshmen and new transfer students into groups of eight to 10 and assigns each a mentor who contacts them as early as July and meets with them regularly through the school year, she said.
Mentors are juniors, seniors and sometimes graduate students, Lasser said.
Bria Dawson, a senior who is a mentor majoring in bioengineering, said that for some freshmen, entering college can be a culture shock.
“They don’t feel as comfortable asking classmates questions as if we were in class together,” she said.
Paige said he will be in the audience when Rivers gets his diploma in mechanical engineering. Rivers said it has meant a lot to have the backing of Paige and the larger PEER community.
“I’ve accomplished it,” Rivers said. “After these four years, I’m at the end of one journey.”
The next one begins where it all started. He and Paige are continuing their studies at Clemson as graduate students.