It’s Demo Day in the Riggs Hall laboratory. The room is loud, crowded, confusing — full of distractions and strange contraptions. Pods of students are spaced out around the lab, hovering over tables and tinkering with the unique handmade devices in front of them. Organized chaos.

Clemson electrical engineering undergraduate student Shari Furman and her teammates prep their project for their class' Demo Day.

Shari Furman and her teammates prep their project for Demo Day.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Tucked away in the back corner of the lab, a group of five engineering students crowd around a towering frame of unfinished two-by-fours, a miniature wooden Stonehenge that slowly hoists and releases the black plastic claw dangling from its horizontal beam. Next to the wooden arch is the control board, tangled with red, yellow and green wires.

It’s the project they’ve been working on all semester — a prototype condiment dispensing station carefully programmed to determine which tube needs to be refilled before the claw descends to just the right height, clutches the empty bottle and whisks it away to the refill platform.

While Demo Day is, at its core, an opportunity for students to showcase what they’ve been building all semester, it is also a competition that rewards efficiency in electronics. Each machine is evaluated for the time it takes to perform its designated function.

The professor approaches, armed with a stopwatch and clipboard. But before he can start timing, the condiment dispenser’s claw juts sideways and spins 180 degrees, sending two plastic tubes flying across the table.

The guys clamor and contend, pitching panicked solutions to fix the last-minute malfunction. Toward the back of the huddle there is an unavoidable splash of hot pink — a girl decked out in a bright Clemson sweatshirt. Although she does not join in on the noisy deliberation, she refuses to blend in with her surroundings. She’s Shari Furman, and from her viewpoint a few steps away from the fray, she studies the machine with an unshakable focus. She is not one to speak without certainty, and this quiet resolve has become a center of balance for both her teammates and herself.

Students' prototype condiment dispense station is programmed to determine which tube needs to be refilled before the prototype moves the empty bottle to the refill platform.

Students’ prototype condiment dispensing station is programmed to determine which tube needs to be refilled before the prototype moves the empty bottle to the refill platform.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Shari is an electrical engineering major with an interest in bioengineering — an ambitious combination that she chose simply because she didn’t want to limit herself to one discipline. In addition to her schoolwork, she has a work study with the Center for Visual Arts (CVA) where she creates video advertisements for Clemson TV and helps plan on-campus events. There’s a lot to learn about her determined spirit from what she’s involved in, but to know who she is, you’d have to look at where she’s been, the challenges she’s overcome — and where she’s headed.

At Clemson, Shari is a minority student in every sense of the word. She’s an African-American and one of only two females in her senior design lab. She’s the first in her family to attend a four-year university. And despite her mother and father picking up extra shifts at the local DuPont factory to help cover her college expenses, her background tends toward the lower end of the average college student’s socioeconomic scale.

But Shari never saw any of these challenges as a barrier to her education.

“I knew for myself that I wanted to go to college. My parents didn’t have to say anything to convince me,” she said. “In high school, I was always in the books and joining clubs to keep me academically active. It’s just part of who I am.”

Like her deep-seeded ambition, Shari can trace her Clemson fever back to high school.

“I’ll say it — I chose Clemson all because of a football game,” she laughed. “I had no idea I would be an engineer. But when I stepped on campus into the gameday atmosphere, I knew I had to be here.”

Shari herself admits that you won’t find her spitting out stats or listing her predictions for the next Heisman trophy winner. There was something else that the highschooler from Camden, South Carolina, was so drawn to that fateful day in Death Valley, perhaps because the sense of unspoken solidarity between orange-clad Tiger fans is embedded deep within her own sphere of experience.

“I have a very strong family. Even though they didn’t go to college, I’m always able to talk to my parents about how classes are going, and they’re so understanding,” she said, smiling.

But as much support as Shari gets from her family, she gives back. During her junior year at Clemson, both her mother and her cousin were diagnosed with breast cancer around the same time. “We had to come together and be strong for one another,” she said.

“I’ve always wanted to help people,” Shari said. “And I was always interested in learning about cancer when I started out in bioengineering, so after going through this, I could see myself working on cancer after graduation.”

Since her quiet passion for supporting others was shaped by her family’s experiences, Shari seeks to help others in any way she can. Through Clemson’s UPIC on-campus internship program, Shari picked up a new responsibility in addition to attending classes, building condiment stations and creating ads in Adobe Illustrator for CVA. She’s a student mentor for the PEER mentor program.

“I take a group of freshmen who are majoring in general engineering or science and help them with their transition to campus,” she said. “We talk about anything and everything — how to study, where to find tutors, events happening on campus, college life, how to find jobs,” she said.

“I feel like a better person knowing that I can help somebody. It’s very rewarding to see the changes with students who take heed to your words. It feels so good that I can motivate and inspire and help people along the way.”

Of course, Shari’s inclination for introspective reflection helps her learn as much from her students as they learn from her.

“You do meet such a diverse group of people,” she said of her Clemson experience. “For me, it helps with the thinking process — I know I want to do something one way, but when you see how other people think about that same situation, you’re opened up to a whole new perspective.”

Shari has one more semester at Clemson before she graduates in December. Her goal is to attend graduate school and get a master’s degree in bioengineering, though she might have to spend some time in the workforce to save up cash before jumping back into academics.

“I have a plan for where I’m going; it’s just about finding a way to get there,” Shari said.

Back in the Riggs Hall lab, her team has finally implemented a solution. Tension builds as Connor Bolton, the team’s computer engineering major, scans the custom QRI code and signals the machine to start. The stopwatch clicks. The group takes a collective breath. The room is strangely silent.

The claw descends carefully, opens its pincers and snaps shut, capturing the green tube — the empty tube. The group members are all smiles, exchanging compliments and high fives. The volume in the lab jumps back to its dull roar, but this time, Shari joins in on the raucous celebration. The high notes of her laughter cut above the background noise, making the symphonic cacophony complete.

Somehow, it seems that Shari’s success isn’t too far out of reach.