The Word Engineer: Engineering-turned-English major follows her heart and leaves her mark at Clemson
Every Tiger has a Clemson story. Many are drawn to this campus for the school spirit that surrounds football season, for the intangible family feel, for the world-renowned research opportunities and unique study programs. Leah VanSyckel’s story starts a little differently.
“I didn’t even finish my application as a senior in high school,” she said. “Clemson was the last place I wanted to go.”
Leah’s initial aversion to orange is relatively unsurprising considering that she grew up in nearby Greenville, S.C., and desperately wanted to experience college far from the familiar Upstate. She also comes from a long line of South Carolina Gamecocks. A Clemson conversion was out of the question.
So, Leah started her educational career at Wheaton College, a liberal arts university in Chicago. There, she was on track to make a day job out of her passion — to teach creative writing to middle and high school students in Rwanda — until unexpected circumstances brought her back home. For better or for worse, that meant applying to schools in-state. It meant becoming a Tiger.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I ever wanted to go to USC,” she said. “Clemson is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”
But, it didn’t happen overnight. When she arrived at Clemson, Leah switched her course of study from international relations to industrial engineering. And she couldn’t have predicted the challenges associated with so many significant changes.
“I’ve always been a writer. But I’d always been told, ‘there’s no money, it’s not practical.’ I switched to engineering because I thought I’d be able to pursue the things I was passionate about in a more pragmatic way,” Leah said. “I was doing ok in my classes, but they weren’t really waking me up in the morning.”
Outside the classroom, Leah came alive through her extracurricular involvement. She quickly became one of the most persuasive students on the debate team, competing in the semifinals of the Novice Nationals debate and the quarterfinals at the International Debate Academy in Slovenia. She worked as section editor for “Tiger Timeout” in The Tiger newspaper. She picked up elective courses in French literature and composition. No matter what style or subject, Leah couldn’t get enough writing.
“When I’m writing and editing, I’m not sitting at a table reading words on a page. I’m in this word universe with syntax and letters all around me,” she said. “I’m analyzing a piece in the same way that a mechanic works on a car. It’s all about structure.”
As any good “word engineer” would, Leah felt compelled to tune up the type of writing that had become prominent on campus. After talking with her friend and colleague Krista Wunsche, the duo realized that they were frustrated with the lack of global awareness in campus media.
“I wanted to produce more meaningful content that could help people engage with and learn about the world they live in,” Leah said. “Krista and I wanted something like a ‘collegiate Economist,’ so we made the charter, wrote the constitution, created a staff and got funding though the College of Business and Behavioral Sciences.”
The first issue of The Pendulum, Clemson’s magazine for international affairs, was published in the fall of 2014. With the perfect combination of teamwork and toil, it went from an idea to a full-fledged print magazine in just five months.
Inspired to continue using her voice on campus, Leah applied to work as a UPIC writing intern for the University’s Office of Creative Services.
“I thought, “I’ll be a part-time writer and a part-time engineer — I can do this.’”
On the job, Leah developed a close relationship with her site mentor, Crystal Bennett, who opened her eyes to a whole new world of writing opportunities.
“Crystal has had a huge influence on me. She listens, remembers, asks questions — and she isn’t afraid to challenge me, which I so appreciate,” Leah said. “She instilled a sense of confidence in me that I hadn’t expected to receive. During this internship, I was developing my voice and seeing from her that writing is a job you can get paid for.”
If her successful writing internship and positive literary feedback weren’t enough, she found validation from two performing arts professors, Kerrie Seymour and Carol Collins.
“Just having that voice — having someone say, ‘I support your creative endeavors,’ really meant a lot to me and empowered me to reconsider where my skillset was,” Leah said.
The next week, she switched her major from engineering to English and never looked back.
Leah embraced new artistic pursuits in what little spare time she had between class sessions and work hours: composing plays, assisting with dramaturge for productions on campus and reading spoken word poetry at Moe Joe’s open mic nights.
Over the course of three years at Clemson, Leah has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments. Among them is the Blue Key Academic and Leadership award, a prestigious honor given exclusively to the top student in each of Clemson’s six colleges. But her character cannot be captured by the bullet points that line her resume.
“All my achievements are very much lit by a more complicated side of college. It’s important for students to know about the hard things that they are going to go through,” she said. “I had to constantly negotiate between mental health and achievement — I wouldn’t be here without support from my community and mentors who were willing to be vulnerable and listen when things were going badly.”
By making herself approachable and never passing up the opportunity to offer a genuine compliment, Leah’s peers inevitably become close friends.
“There’s this sense of human connection — the thriving heartbeat of Clemson that is its students and faculty,” she said.
Today, when you see Leah riding her yellow bike around campus or walking across Library Bridge, she does it with a smile on her face. The graduating senior is hardly the same person as the high school girl who couldn’t see herself as a Tiger.
Leah’s post-grad pursuits will take her far from her home in Upstate, South Carolina. She’s headed to Northern Ireland, where she will spend the summer working as a barn minder for a professional storyteller and hostel owner — it’s an opportunity facilitated by English department faculty.
“When I first came to Clemson, I didn’t think that I was going to leave any part of me behind,” Leah said. “Now, I hope the relationships I’ve been able to cultivate with professors and younger students can pay forward what I was given as an undergraduate. I hope to leave a legacy of compassion and discourse and relentless learning and excessive optimism.”
There’s no doubt she already has.