CLEMSON — The Clemson University Emerging Scholars Program, founded 15 years ago to establish a college-going culture among students in families from economically disadvantaged areas in the Lowcountry, is expanding to reach more students in the Pee Dee region.

“We are now expanding the program to work with students in Dillon and Marlboro counties,” said Amber Lange, executive director of the Office of College Preparation and Outreach in the Office of Inclusion and Equity.

Dillon High School principal, Timothy Gibbs, said working with Clemson and the Emerging Scholars Program enhances his school’s commitment to its students and their academic growth.

“Additionally, exposure to Clemson University and all that it has to offer will bring to life the dream of attaining college education for students here at Dillon High School,” Gibbs said. “We are proud to be a part of such an awesome program and partnership.”

Before the program expanded, Lange and her team worked with only five high schools along the I-95 corridor in Allendale, Bamberg and Hampton counties.

“Some people call it the ‘Corridor of Shame’; we really don’t like that term,” Lange said. “We are ashamed of the resources the schools get, not our students.”

Emerging Scholars equips students with the tools they need to begin a journey toward college by giving them university experience while they are in high school.

“I’m a very sports-oriented, outgoing person, but academics come first,” said Amber Ferguson, a senior at Allendale Fairfax High School and one of 180 students currently enrolled in the Emerging Scholars Program.

The late Captain Byron Wiley founded the program to give high-schoolers academic enrichment, develop leadership skills and increase their college preparedness.

Today, Emerging Scholars touts:

  • 100 percent of its scholars graduated from high school,
  • 90 percent of these students attend college or join the military their first year out of high school and
  • 79 percent of program participants who matriculated to some form of postsecondary school after graduation either attended a research institution or four-year college or university.

Emerging Scholars students attend colleges and universities throughout South Carolina and the Southeast.

“They come to Clemson every summer after their freshmen year — one week as sophomores, two weeks as juniors and three weeks as seniors.” Lange said. “They take college classes with college faculty. They’re doing leadership activities and we’re literally teaching them how to get to college… going through the application and financial aid processes.”

The scholars team up with Clemson student mentors, advisers and faculty during the summer with the goal of achieving college admission status.

“Our program advisers are very inspiring. They tell us all the time, ‘Keep pushing. You can do it,’” Ferguson said. “We’re only here for a few weeks and college life is rough, but with them being there, helping and supporting us… they are very inspiring.”

“We have some of the most amazing students and some come from schools that aren’t always in the news for positive things, like Allendale-Fairfax. But we know better. We know there are a lot of students who just need exposure,” Lange said.

Lange points to many success stories from Allendale-Fairfax, including her associate director, Jason Combs. Combs was one of the first participants in the program.

“I was extremely shy when I was in high school. I didn’t talk much until maybe my sophomore year,” Combs said. “The program took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to grow.”

Combs attended Morehouse College two years before he transferred to Clemson, where he served as a program adviser for the Emerging Scholars Program.

“I transferred to Clemson mainly because I wanted to be closer to this program and being a program adviser just took me to another level of confidence and growth,” Combs said. “I got to see the backbone of the program and what it meant. I got to see a student go from being a shy, timid student (like I was), to being the student who loves to be the class leader or who loves to speak in front of the class. That was me. Now I’m able to give back to the program that helped me.”

Lange has served as director of Emerging Scholars for 10 years and in that time she noted a lack of dedication to the public school system along the I-95 corridor. Many parents send their children to small private schools rather than public schools.

“And that’s causing problems. I mean, we’ve been dealing with this since Brown v. Board of Education,” Lange said. “It’s not going to fix itself. You have to have the whole community involved and everyone taking an active interest in the public education system or change is not going to happen.”

Lange said that people in the communities she worked with initially expressed skepticism. They were concerned Emerging Scholars was just a short-term grant program. But, 15 years later, participating high schools not only have embraced the program, students get extra credit for engaging in the program’s activities.

“I have found there might be stereotypes about the communities we work in; that they don’t care about education. They do, and they care a lot. They don’t always know how to fix the problems,” Lange said.

Many parents also work two or three jobs because there aren’t many high-paying jobs in their town. Others may drive an hour to work in Columbia, Aiken or Savannah, Georgia.

Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman with Emerging Scholars student, Antwon Gill

Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman with Emerging Scholars student, Antwon Gill

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman recognizes the challenges students face in many of the state’s rural communities. She supports Clemson’s efforts to prepare students for futures in higher education.

“Clemson’s Emerging Scholars Program instills knowledge, tools and willpower in South Carolina students from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they have the support necessary to make higher education a reality,” Spearman said. “I commend Clemson on its continued support for this outstanding program.”

Spearman said her office looks forward to working with Clemson as Emerging Scholars continues to grow.

Added initiatives like a mandatory after-school program help monitor the progress of Emerging Scholars.

“We hire teachers in each school and they follow a set curriculum that is about things we talk about during the summer,” Lange said. “We also have a great partnership with 4-H. They come into almost all of our schools at least once a month and they’re doing some leadership exercises. So they’re excited to get into the schools as well through our program.”

Emerging Scholars focuses solely on higher education. Students come into the program knowing it is about getting them to college and on the path to a career they can be proud of.

“I know I want to be a lawyer. I’m going to be a lawyer,” Ferguson said. “Thanks to the Emerging Scholars Program, I know what I want because the program helps you find yourself and I found myself. I’m going to major in pre-law and criminal justice.”

That’s the kind of determination the Emerging Scholars hopes to nurture throughout the process.

“We try to just be there for our students and their parents to support them. We try to make sure our students know they can do anything they want to do,” Lange said. “They have all the opportunities in the world.”