Student Leah Watts shows off her school spirit by having painted up as every letter in C-L-E-M-S-O-N for football games.

Leah Watts has painted up as every letter in C-L-E-M-S-O-N.
Image Credit: Leah Watts

It’s Saturday, it’s September and senior Leah Watts is in the front row of Death Valley’s student section. Despite the outrageous heat, Clemson’s craziest football fan is covered head to toe in orange and purple body paint. She stands, proudly bearing the letter “N” on her chest, in a long line of friends whose own letters read C-L-E-M-S-O-.

If home is where the heart is, this is it.

To so many who’ve felt the roar of Memorial Stadium on game day, Clemson is home — more literally for those who walk back to their dorms after the fourth quarter. But the sense of home so often associated with phrases like “Clemson Family” and “Solid Orange” isn’t always automatic.

Just five years ago, Leah was more quiet than confident, more reserved than rowdy and more inclined to avoid competition than embrace it.

“I thought my transition to college would be a lot smoother than it was,” Leah said. “I knew Clemson’s strong school spirit, small town charm and beautiful campus were just what I was looking for. But it took me a little bit longer to find my niché, to fit in with groups.”

Clemson student Leah Watts poses during a football game with The Tiger mascot.Five years ago, on a day like today, freshman Leah walked into the first class on her jam-packed schedule. By the end of the lecture, she left discouraged and intimidated by her competitive honors classmates.

“It was an important lesson that you shouldn’t spend your time comparing yourself to everyone else,” Leah said. “I needed to take care of myself. It’s about balance.”

To find that balance, Leah stepped outside of her comfort zone.

She joined Central Spirit, a student organization of Clemson crazies known for being the loudest fans in football and painting the town orange. (They actually paint tiger paws on every store window lining College Avenue.) Since the club offers an allotment of tickets to members, Leah could relax knowing that she’d always have a seat in the stadium.

She attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ Thursday night services, which became a critical mid-week stress-reliever. Before long, Leah was involved in a Bible study group and attending Crosspoint church.

“Being involved in church really impacted my life — as soon as I started going, my stress level dropped, and I finally started to feel settled in at college,” she said.

Leah also found balance by mixing traditional class time with hands-on experience. After being diagnosed with melanoma in high school, she was inspired to participate in a research project focused on proteins that have been tied to breast cancer.

“Working hands-on in the lab has actually been a great way to reduce stress, too,” she said. “I’m not there because I have to be there — I go because I enjoy it so much. Our group is really close, and we have so much independence to investigate topics we’re interested in.”

She’s even been known to start a quick Nerf gun war between experiments.

In a matter of months, Leah found her home at Clemson. But she didn’t stop once she felt comfortable — she went out of her way to share that sense of belonging with others.

Now, Leah leads a Bible study for local high school students who are experiencing the same pivotal transitions she faced freshman year. She’s become one of the unspoken leaders in Central Spirit and set a record as the first member to paint up as every letter in the word “CLEMSON.” After eight semesters of working in lab, she’s the one sharing her own research tips and tricks with underclassman.

Clemson student Leah Watts received $3,000 in grants from the Calhoun Honors College for her lab’s breast cancer research.

Image Credit: Clemson University

But for Leah, her biggest accomplishment isn’t that she’s seen her name on the President’s List for five semesters, or that she’s amassed over 400 hours in shadowing and clinical experience.

And it’s not even that she’s received $3,000 in grants from the Calhoun Honors College for her lab’s breast cancer research.

“Even though it wasn’t on my ‘Clemson Bucket List,’ Clemson has helped me achieve an even greater goal that I hadn’t really planned on: personal growth.”

When the biological sciences major isn’t studying or enjoying her last football season in the student section, she’ll spend time finalizing her applications for physician assistant school, where she will pursue a career as a dermatology PA. She hopes to give her patients the same support that she received during her own treatment, and to share the sense of family that she’s found at Clemson.

“Clemson doesn’t just create strong students, it makes better people,” Leah said. “That’s what I’m most thankful for, out of all the things Clemson has given me.”