It was a quiet February morning in Clemson when members of the Vice President’s Executive Council — a group of advisors for the Division of Student Affairs — sat around a table in the Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Education Center and listened intently as university staff provided updates for discussion on a number of important areas.

Central among the topics at the group’s annual winter meeting was the concept of student leadership.

Students take part in a U-NITES! trivia night event in the Barnes Center during the spring semester. On-campus social programming is a major focus of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement.

Students take part in a U-NITES! trivia event in the Barnes Center during the spring semester. Late-night social programming is one of several major focuses of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement.
Image Credit: Student Affairs Publications

Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Mandy Hays, who has been with Student Affairs since the mid-1990s, introduced the council to an exciting new development planned as a result of the latest division reorganization.

“I told the council this concept has been discussed for well over a decade,” Hays said. “When I said that, Angelo (Mitsopoulos) — a former student body president and a board member — just shook his head, looked at me and said it’s been longer than that.

“Truth be told, the idea of a consolidated student leadership structure has probably presented itself in different forms or fashions for three decades.”

As administration changed within the division, the concept of student leadership expanded. Pieces began falling into place for the newest iteration when Hays hired Josh Barnes from Newberry College in 2012. Over the next few years, he began creating a more intentional advising structure for student organizations. At the same time, the scope of social programming, civic engagement experiences and involvement opportunities grew exponentially for students.

Over the past several years, Campus Life consisted of two functional areas: Campus Activities and Events and Student Involvement and Leadership. The former manages reservable spaces on Clemson’s main campus and provides operational, venue and technical support for events. The latter has aimed to connect students to leadership and involvement opportunities on campus through a variety of methods.

In February 2020, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Chris Miller laid out a plan to the Board of Trustees for the latter that would allow for a more robust Clemson experience through a new department — the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement.

“This new structure will allow us to engage students in a different way,” Miller said. “Our main emphasis is assisting students transitioning in, transitioning on and transitioning out of Clemson. The Center for Student Leadership and Engagement helps us do that in a more deliberate fashion.”

Families and students go through 2019 summer orientation

The Center for Student Leadership and Engagement will be in charge of New Student Orientation moving forward.
Image Credit: Student Affairs Publications

From acceptance through graduation, the center envisions a uniquely Clemson leadership experience that prepares students to be leaders in their careers and communities.

Barnes was tapped to serve as the center’s leader.

“I’m over the top excited with this wonderful opportunity,” he said. “I’m honored to lead this effort and be part of something that can make a lasting impact on the Clemson student experience.”

The biggest organizational change in the model is the addition of New Student Orientation. Previously housed in what was known as Student Transitions and Family Programs, director Glenn Spurlin has been charged with the responsibility of acclimating thousands of students and families into the Clemson experience. Now, he’ll do so as a member of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement leadership team.

Attendees enjoy the 2020 Women's Leadership Conference

The annual Women’s Leadership Conference is run by the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement.
Image Credit: Student Affairs Publications

“We’ve got three functional areas: student transitions, student involvement and student leadership,” Barnes said. “Glenn has joined Myles Surrett (associate director for student involvement) and Kate Radford (associate director for leadership education and development) and they will lead these areas and teams for the center. We’ll operate like a network of leadership coaches.”

By incorporating Orientation, Barnes hopes to develop leadership connections right out of the gate.

“It all ties into creating a culture of leadership and service for students,” he said. “We want them to connect and feel like they belong as soon as possible so they can become more engaged on campus as leaders.”

The sense of belonging, involvement and leadership has been fostered through multiple advancements, including:

  • IMPACT, a four-day experience for incoming freshmen and transfers;
  • Certified Student Leader, a co-curricular certification program designed to prepare students with basic leadership proficiencies;
  • U-NITES!, late-night social programming opportunities for students;
  • Tiger Connect, a smaller-scale involvement fair that aims to connect students with department or office representatives to discuss interests and values in order to increase their sense of belonging at Clemson;
  • Alternative Break Program, domestic and international service trips for students; and
  • Women’s Leadership Conference, an annual event aimed at building capacity and efficacy in leadership.

In Fall 2015, Barnes noted less than 100 students participated in leadership and service programs. During the 2019-20 academic year, the number was on track to reach more than 1,000 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Barnes said the center’s infrastructure will ultimately have the capacity to reach every Clemson student.

A sense of belonging and leadership has also been fostered through involvement opportunities. Traditionally, new students are introduced to the breadth of opportunities to get involved each year through Tiger Prowl, an organization fair in August that attracts thousands throughout the concourses of Memorial Stadium.

Tiger Prowl — held in collaboration with Clemson Undergraduate Student Government — is large in scope and while it has proven to be a maximum use of resources, its effectiveness is somewhat limited due to the cluttered nature of the event. Surrett’s team came up with more targeted approaches to student involvement, such as Place Finder, which serves as a follow-up mechanism for all students based on their responses to an interest survey following Orientation.

“We believe supplementing Tiger Prowl with other involvement interventions is a better way to get students connected on campus,” Surrett said. “The data we’re certainly seeing supports that.”

Josh Barnes, director of the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement, working in Edgar A. Brown University Union

Josh Barnes has been chosen to lead the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement. Barnes joined Clemson’s Division of Student Affairs in 2012.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Barnes believes the Center for Student Leadership and Engagement will maximize resources to scale up leadership and service programming, while becoming a centralized hub for the campus community. In the end, he hopes every student who participates in leadership experiences is well-educated, competent, confident, highly sought after and prepared to lead in their profession and community.

The center is on track to officially launch in August. In the meantime, the staff is busy marketing the center and creating a brand identity while reaching out to and continuing relationships with key campus partners.

Hays calls the current leadership group in charge of the center a “dream team.” She believes big opportunities are ahead for her team as it aims to generate the type of support that will lead to a sustainable and innovative model.

She also said the center should go a long way in dispelling the notion that leadership only exists in the form of officer positions within student organizations.

“Everything you do through this model, from the moment you’re accepted into Clemson — how you’re connected and involved — those things impact your leadership experiences and professional opportunities,” she said. “That, to me, is a game-changer in terms of what we do.”