Tiger Alliance, a Clemson University program designed to create a college-going culture for African American and Hispanic high school students, has been invited to present at the 10th annual South by Southwest Education Conference and Festival (SXSW EDU) March 9-12 in Austin, Texas.

SXSW EDU fosters innovation in learning and is attended by more than 13,000 people from more than 40 countries. Tiger Alliance’s proposal was selected from more than 1,700 submissions.

A man in an orange Clemson shirt is surrounded by laughing and clapping boys

Clemson University student Giancarlo Silva (orange shirt), a freshman studying criminal justice from Gastonia, N. C., takes a group of fourth-graders from Legacy Early College Charter School on a tour of the Clemson campus.

Tiger Alliance was formed in 2017 to help illuminate pathways to college and build a college-going culture for African American and Hispanic ninth- to 12th-grade students in Upstate South Carolina. Participants are paired with a current college student as a mentor and benefit from college tours, access to information about college fairs and expos, college-prep workshops and attendance at the Men of Color National Summit.

It is one of many outreach and college-access programs at Clemson aimed at minority and economically disadvantaged students. Other programs include  Call Me Mister, which targets men of color who want to be educators in underserved, socio-economically disadvantaged and educationally at-risk communities, and Emerging Scholars, aimed at historically underrepresented students of all genders in families from rural communities in South Carolina’s 1-95 corridor.

Despite being a relatively young program, associate director Matthew Kirk states Tiger Alliance has proved it is having an impact.

“Eighty percent of our students would be first-generation college students,” said Kirk. “[And] since we’ve been tracking data – starting with our 2018 graduates – we’ve had a 100 percent graduation rate with 93 percent going on to enroll in college or join the military.”

Kirk said those results speak to a great need for institutions like Clemson to reach young people growing up in underserved communities who might never consider higher education as an option in their lives. One of the key elements of Tiger Alliance is bringing the program straight into its nine partner high schools by way of its ambassadors, the majority of whom are Hispanic and African American Clemson students.

A group of boys stands on a set of steps as a man in a blue shirt gestures to the left of the frame and talks

Clemson University student and Tiger Alliance ambassador Robert Magwood (center), a senior studying sociology, speaks to a group of rising high school sophomores on the steps of Sikes Hall during a tour of the Clemson campus.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Kirk said of the young people Tiger Alliance aims to reach. “It’s important that you see people who look like you in the places you want to be. If you don’t know people who are going to college, psychologically speaking you might not think it’s for you.”

Students who have been through the program agree with Kirk. Clemson student and Tiger Alliance ambassador Tavarie Taylor, a freshman in the Bridge to Clemson Program studying music production, discovered Tiger Alliance when he was a sophomore at D.W. Daniel High School. He said he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t found the program, or it hadn’t found him.

“Tiger Alliance is the reason why I am a student at Clemson University,” said Taylor. “The opportunities you’re given to succeed within the program are amazing. No one is going to let anybody fall by the wayside and everyone holds each other accountable to be successful, educated men in college. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, involved with Tiger Alliance wants you to be able to succeed no matter what college you go to or don’t. The tools and life skills you develop through this program are 100 percent going to guarantee your success in some shape or form.”

Taylor’s fellow ambassador, Julio Rodriguez, a freshman studying engineering, joined the program when he was a sophomore at Easley High School. He credits Tiger Alliance with planting the idea of going to college in his head.

“I would never have done this on my own,” Rodriguez said. “My parents did not go to college and they work seven days a week. Touring a college campus would have never been on their agenda.”

After going through the program himself and now acting as an ambassador, Rodriguez said he sees helping high school students reach their full potential as the most important thing about the program. That is echoed by fellow ambassador Thaddeus Major, a Clemson sophomore studying computer science who, like Taylor, found Tiger Alliance when he was a sophomore at D.W. Daniel High School.

“The best aspect of the program, in my opinion, is the fact it isn’t as much a college recruiting program as it is a mentorship program,” said Major. “Helping people to plan and decide what career they want and how they want to get there feels much better than just advocating for the investment of a college education. Personally, it impacted me in a big way because of the way it helped me choose a college. I would say that’s pretty big.”

“Tiger Alliance, first and foremost, is a program for the empowerment and education of black and brown men in the classroom, workspace and beyond,” said Major. “Other than that, we want to support men of color in their pursuit of excellence, motivate them to help their community the way they were helped and create a young community of scholars. I think that’s a mission anyone can get behind.”

Matthew Kirk, associate director of Tiger Alliance (left), and student Jose Rodriguez, a Tiger Alliance ambassador and sophomore studying language and international health, pose on the mall in front of R.M. Cooper Library. Both men will be part of the team representing Tiger Alliance at SXSW EDU.

“The concept of mentorship plays a huge part in the program’s success,” said Kirk. “Graduates who go on to college are expected to turn right around and reach back to the young men just starting as sophomores in high school.”

Presenters representing Tiger Alliance at SXSW will be Kirk, Rodriguez and Michael Knox, one of the school partners at Legacy Early College High School in Greenville. They have been slotted a full hour to present. Kirk said they will have no problem filling that amount of time.

“We have plenty to talk about,” said Kirk. “A big part of why we need to talk about Tiger Alliance is it can be modeled and replicated. There are no reasons why other institutions of higher learning couldn’t do similar things. I think everybody – particularly state institutions – should have programs like this that reach out to people in their backyard