CLEMSON — Hesha N. Gamble said that as an African-American student pursuing an engineering degree, she was too often told “you can’t.”

But she did.

Gamble received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Clemson University and is now Greenville County engineer, a position that has her overseeing a staff of 77 and 1,760 miles of road.

Crystal Pee, right, works with a student in the new PEER-WISE Study Hall Annex.

Crystal Pee, right, works with a student in the new PEER-WISE Study Hall Annex.

Her success is an example of what Clemson hopes to replicate with PEER, a program aimed at recruiting and retaining African-American engineering students.

The program marks a victory today as Clemson celebrates its ranking as the nation’s 20th highest producer of African-American undergraduates receiving baccalaureate degrees, according to the magazine Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

The ranking is a key benchmark because African-Americans remain underrepresented in engineering, an in-demand field with high earning potential. While African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population, they hold about 4 percent of engineering degrees, according to the National Society of Black Engineers.

Clemson’s ranking this year was up four spots from 2015 and 13 spots from 2014. When historically black universities are excluded, Clemson ranked 12th this year among predominantly white institutions.

PEER is central to Clemson’s effort to maintain forward momentum and is an acronym for Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention.

The program offers several services, but juniors and seniors serving as mentors to freshmen and sophomores is at its heart.

Crystal Pee, a chemical engineering major from Conway, said her mentor introduced her to the Clemson chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. She served as the chapter president, which led her to a conference in Minneapolis, where she landed an internship with a multinational food company.

Now in her fourth year at Clemson, Pee serves as a mentor to 13 other students, who sometimes tell her, “I don’t know if I can do it.”

“It’s your job to step in and say, ‘You can do it,’” Pee said. “We have resources. You’re their parent when you need to be. You’re their friend when you need to be.”

Serita Acker, the director of PEER and the related program WISE, said the latest ranking highlights the effectiveness of the programs offered at Clemson.

“Clemson is making strides in diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Our office has an impact on that. It’s a welcoming place. Minorities and women know they can come here and transition and become a part of the overall Clemson family.”

PEER has newly renovated offices in Freeman Hall, where students can often be found studying and socializing. The new PEER-WISE Study Hall Annex features tutoring, state-of-the art meeting space and a kitchen.

“Our rise in these rankings is a reflection of the hard work being done by many in the college and across the university to enroll and graduate an increasingly high-quality, diverse student body,” Clemson President James P. Clements said. “In order for U.S. industry to remain a global innovation leader, universities must graduate more engineers, including more minority and women engineers. Clemson is committed to addressing this national challenge through programs such as PEER.”

Gamble said that before she arrived at Clemson, she went to a magnet school in Charleston, where she was exposed to different ethnic backgrounds. But she remembers many of her classmates coming from rural, underfunded schools where nearly all of the students were African American.

“It’s not that they can’t do the work,” Gamble said. “They get thrown into the lion’s den, and they start to struggle. PEER gives us an opportunity to immediately have a support system. It covers all aspects– academic, social and everything in between.”

The 2016 rankings were based on data from the 2014-15 academic year. Clemson graduated 33 African-Americans, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

Congratulations also came from Lee Gill, Clemson’s chief inclusion and equity officer and special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence.

“Clemson’s efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion are moving forward strategically,” he said. “This latest ranking is a sign of progress and is to be commended.”

Max Allen, chief of staff to Clements, said that PEER serves as an example of how the university is embracing and empowering all members of the Clemson family.

“Sometimes all students need are a few words of encouragement and some assurance to help them feel like they belong,” he said. “PEER helps fill that role for minority engineering students.”

Pee said that at PEER she found not only academic and moral support, but also a mindset to help others.

When she went to a recent Management Leadership for Tomorrow conference, she was asked to what she attributes her success.

“I attribute mine to God, family and PEER,” she said.

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