Elmer Orellana wasn’t entirely sure where his post-undergraduate experience would take him. The one thing the 2015 George Mason University graduate was sure of was that he wanted to make a difference, or — in his own words — to “make ripples” into the lives of students.

To that end, his path to Clemson was atypical.

Born in the small Central American country of El Salvador, he immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was 7 years old. He acclimated to the American lifestyle and educational system in New York before spending his formative years in Richmond, Virginia.

“It was challenging, and definitely a culture shock,” Orellana admitted. “Trying to navigate a new environment and culture was an adjustment.”

Another adjustment soon followed, when he was the first member of his family to attend college. He earned a degree in community health from George Mason, with a minor in psychology.

But it was during the year immediately following graduation when he began to see inequalities that made up the educational system, especially as it related to underrepresented populations.

Elmer Orellana, a Student Affairs graduate assistant

Elmer Orellana is a second-year graduate assistant in Student Affairs whose work ranges from community engagement to support for underrepresented populations.
Image Credit: Erica Cooper

“I worked in a Title I public school system,” he said. “It really opened my eyes. I applied to different graduate school programs in the South, because I wanted to challenge myself.”

Orellana ultimately chose to further his academic development at Clemson, enrolling in the counselor education program with an emphasis in the field of student affairs. He reports to Kate Radford in student leadership and community engagement programs in Campus Activities & Events.

About a year ago, he discovered a true passion while completing his first required practicum with DeOnte Brown, who oversees retention efforts for the Office of Student Transitions and Family Programs.

“I was looking at students who identified as Hispanic or Latino, and what support services were available to them,” Orellana said. “My task was to benchmark other institutions and see what they were providing those communities.”

According to Radford, Orellana has been instrumental in growing enthusiasm and passion for community engagement. His ability to challenge Campus Activities & Events has led to a wider range of experiences, such as the collaboration with Brown’s programs.

“Elmer is driven and has built meaningful relationships and advocated for an array of students in his short time at Clemson,” Radford said. “He has truly made the most of his Clemson experience by working with a broad range of campus departments and seeking to understand the complexity of student experiences from many angles.”

While completing his initial practicum, Orellana was introduced to some of the programs designed specifically for underrepresented student populations. He took an immediate liking to one in particular, Renaissance MAN (Male Achievement Network).

A group of students gathered for a leadership class as part of the Renaissance MAN program

Orellana assists DeOnte Brown (left) with a leadership class in Renaissance MAN, a four-year program designed to support men of color along their Clemson journeys.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Targeting men of color enrolled at Clemson, Renaissance MAN is an initiative charged with providing academic enrichment, social engagement, personal development and professional preparation. Its experience is designed to continually offer support to men of color from the time they enroll as Clemson freshmen through their senior year.

“We constantly look at what it means to be a young man of color in higher education,” Orellana said. “The first two years of the program we attempt to rewrite some of the narratives that exist and bolster a student’s confidence. The last two is about preparation for life after Clemson. We want them to become social agents of change in the Clemson community and beyond.”

Orellana praised Brown as an inspirational mentor who has helped him grow professionally. Together, the two act as connection points to students enrolled in the program to the various resources available on campus. They also invite campus partners to discuss similar experiences, while also teaching an identity and leadership class.

Brown has been thoroughly impressed with Orellana’s work with the program, made up of three cohorts to date.

“Elmer is truly a special individual,” Brown said. “He really connects with the students and has really engaged in this experience. He wants to impact the lives of other men of color. Similar to how other mentors have helped him get where he is today, he wants to support our students throughout their Clemson journey. He wants them to be challenged and to figure out what they want to do that leaves an impact on this world.”

And while Orellana admits the work has been challenging, he also acknowledges it has been rewarding. Coming from a diverse and progressive region, he’s made it a goal to embolden Clemson’s underrepresented students in Renaissance MAN to be confident and pursue their dreams.

And that non-traditional path, after all, is what led Orellana to a place like Clemson University.

“I’m very passionate about working with young men of color,” he said. “To defy the scripts that have been typecast on them, it’s rewarding to see them not only challenge that, be involved on this campus and hold leadership positions, but also to give back to the community they’ve been a part of.”