GREENVILLE — Signs pepper hallways at Berea High School in Greenville County:

Berea High School

Berea High School

“You are important.”

“You are thinkers.”

“You are leaders.”

The school’s teachers, guidance counselors and administrators constantly remind students how valuable they are, knowing high school is a time when students start thinking seriously about their futures. Yet many students worry their differences put them at a disadvantage when it comes to higher education.

“Maybe we’re not given as many opportunities as other people who, how would you say? Have more developed families,” said Isaac Vidales, a Berea High School junior.

Vidales is Mexican-American. He and his younger brother were born in Greenville, while his older brother was born in Mexico.

“My older brother’s opportunities were very slim and getting to college was much more difficult financially,” he said.

Vidales is learning more about college opportunities as a member of Clemson University’s Tiger Alliance, a college access program designed to help build pathways to higher education. The program targets black, Latino and Hispanic males in the Greenville, Anderson, Spartanburg and Pickens counties in Upstate South Carolina. Some 400 Alliance members will gather at the T.D. Convention Center Thursday and Friday in Greenville for Clemson’s 2018 National Men of Color Summit.

Vidales and several of his schoolmates also attended last year’s summit.

“For me, it was all about opportunities,” he said. “It was an opportunity to see what college campuses are going to be like and how I should approach universities with the right mindset.”

DeAaron Collins (left), Isaac Vidales and Devin Edwards gathered in the Berea High School library.

DeAaron Collins (left), Isaac Vidales and Devin Edwards gathered in the Berea High School library.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Each Alliance member has a story. Their walks of life vary, but many of the challenges they face are similar.

“I’ve always felt a little threatened, you could say, about my ‘place’ in going to school and all that,” said DeAaron Collins, a Berea High School senior. “Both sides of my family take diversity different ways.”

Collins is black and his family is Mexican.

“When I live in Mexico, I’m kind of the odd one there, but then when I come here, I’m still the odd one because I’m a black kid who speaks Spanish,” Collins said.

Tiger Alliance encourages students to embrace their differences and see the power in being uniquely themselves.

Collins also plans to return to the Men of Color Summit where he said his eyes opened to new possibilities.

“Seeing all those different cultures there and people helping us minorities out was great, and being black coming from a Mexican household, I kind of just understand both,” Collins said.

Berea High School senior Devin Edwards will return to the summit with his schoolmates Vidales and Collins. All three young men said they brought back chunks of wisdom from the presenters.

“I learned we can build ourselves up from where we’ve come from,” Edwards said. “We’ve overcome adversities throughout our history and now that we’re on this building block, we can continue to building up our culture.”

All three young men said they have high expectations about this year’s summit.

The mission of the National Men of Color Summit is to close the achievement gap for African-American and Hispanic males from the cradle to their careers. Some 2,000 high school and college students, business professionals, educators, government officials and community leaders from around the country will be in attendance. The summit emphasizes the importance of education, best practices and choices to increase high school and graduation rates.

Tiger Alliance is designed to help students reach their intended goals.

Miriam Miles is the ninth-grade guidance counselor at Berea High School and a Clemson alumna.

“I’m very excited Clemson started this program and I’m very interested to see what it becomes,” Miles said. “I know it’s in the beginning stages, but it’s just a really great opportunity for our students to learn not only more about Clemson, but about other colleges and also hopefully learn about themselves and leave the program feeling more confident, inspired and more empowered.”

Miles said that students talked about last year’s summit for days afterward.

“For many of them, that was the first time they’d heard such a positive message surrounded by so many people who look like themselves,” Miles said. “For a lot of students in this community, they are limited to what they know and what their families know and I think it’s great for students to see what’s beyond this community and even beyond Greenville to see what their futures can hold and what’s available to them.”

Matthew Kirk is associate director of Tiger Alliance.

Matthew Kirk is associate director of Tiger Alliance.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Students learn about the processes and requirements for college entry, scholarships and financial aid opportunities at the summit and as members of Tiger Alliance.

“I think if you don’t know anyone who went to college in your neighborhood or family, that’s not the first natural thought for you either,” said Matthew Kirk, associate director of Tiger Alliance. “My vision for Tiger Alliance is to help spring that thought not only is college an option, but it could be my next natural step if that is what I want it to be.”

Kirk said Tiger Alliance takes a wholistic approach to helping students understand the dynamics and expectations of college.

“And again, not just them, but their entire family unit,” Kirk said.

Kirk works with partner schools in four counties. Guidance counselors and administrators help identify candidates for Tiger Alliance.

“In our minds, best fit students for the program are literally students who don’t see college as an option,” Kirk said.

He said many students who don’t think about going to college may not think about excelling in high school.

“The student may not be putting forth the maximum amount of effort because they don’t know what end that would reach them,” Kirk said.

Kirk believes sparking student interest in college and helping them believe they can really do it could jump start them on the road to access.

“As a former academic coach, one of the things I always told my students is ‘effort is the path to mastery, not just innate intelligence.’ So we really want to see students putting forth that effort in the classroom.”

Kirk identified 25 Tiger Alliance Clemson ambassadors to mentor the students and help them navigate the 45-plus sessions at the summit.

The 2018 National Men of Color Summit again features an all-star lineup of keynote speakers. Back by popular demand is Brian Heat, an academic administrator and entrepreneur who brought his last name to the floor with life-affirming messages.

“He was kind of harsh, but nice at the same time,” said Collins.

“He was really excited,” echoed Vilades. “He was really motivational. He engaged with the students from different schools and motivated us to push forward with the chances we’re given.”

“In the beginning it was kind of intense,” said Edwards. “My father came from the U.S. Army and when I got in trouble he would make me go outside and do pushups, so I thought Mr. Heat was gonna make us drop, but he was really good and motivational.”

All three students at Berea High School said they look forward to this year’s summit. They already have in mind what they plan to do when they graduate from high school.

“I plan to audition and apply for more scholarships for acting and theater,” said Collins. “I’d like to get a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.”

“I want to become a computer programmer, go into computer engineering when I get older,” Edwards said.

“I really do hope to go to a university. I’m not sure what university because there are many to choose from,” Vilades said. “But I think the main goal is to go to Clemson and major in architecture, maybe in the arts, too.”

The 2018 National Men of Color Summit is presented by Clemson University’s Division of Inclusion and Equity which is comprised of multiple departments and units that provide initiatives, programs and resources for students, faculty, staff and the community to promote inclusive excellence in higher education.