Underrepresented students find sense of community as CONNECTIONS welcomes its largest cohort
Nyla McCranie had already been accepted into Clemson, and as she was signing up for freshman housing, was eager to learn more about the opportunities that would be available to her.
McCranie didn’t know much about Clemson. She was an aspiring chemistry major from Memphis, Tennessee who didn’t even have the South Carolina university on her radar until after conversations with friends during an 11th-grade physics class.
“I knew I was interested in multicultural programming and social awareness,” she explained. “So as I was looking through the housing opportunities, I was focused on the different living-learning communities. That’s when I came across CONNECTIONS.”
Originally formed on Clemson’s campus in 1992, the program has undergone several iterations in its aim to help transition first-year students that identify as students of color or as first generation. In 2011, CONNECTIONS adopted its current model which identified its three central components as a living-learning community, peer mentoring and engagement with faculty and staff.
Through the initiative, students gain opportunities for transformation through one of five pillars — personal development, academic engagement, culture and diversity, involvement and a support network.
“I was nervous about first coming to Clemson,” admitted Cleo Lyles, a senior and peer mentor from just up I-85 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “CONNECTIONS made it an easier transition for me. You are paired with a mentor, take an introductory class and live together. I’ve had such a great time in the program.
“I was so close to my mentor, Barbara Dinkins. She was very involved on campus, and we later lived together. I think of her as a best friend and big sister. Now, I want to give mentees that same experience.”
As fate would have it, McCranie was paired with Lyles as one of her mentees for 2019-20.
Fate also had a little bit of a sense of humor.
“I was so excited for the mentor reveal,” McCranie said. “It was scheduled for 5:30 two days before classes began, but we had a huge hail storm on campus and I was so afraid that was going to end up pushing it back.”
She had been talking to Lyles since the springtime through a CONNECTIONS group chat, and learned of her mentor pairing after the reveal took place as scheduled.
“I thought Cleo was iconic; I loved her,” McCranie continued. “So when I found out she was my mentor, I couldn’t contain my excitement.”
With 99 mentees, CONNECTIONS welcomed its biggest cohort this fall. Its importance to students of color and first-generation students is difficult to describe without seeing it up close and in person. For many, it helps foster a sense of community as soon as a student sets foot on campus.
Sarah Dumas has been involved with the program as a staff member within Student Transitions and Family Programs since 2017, first as peer engagement coordinator and currently as assistant director of retention programs. And during that time, she’s seen countless examples of CONNECTIONS enhancing students’ experiences at Clemson.
“It’s a conduit for community-building and friendship,” said Dumas, who earned the 2018 Walter T. Cox New Professional Award for outstanding contributions and potential in the student affairs field. “It gives students a home base to get comfortable as they begin branching out and becoming leaders on our campus.”
It didn’t take long for Lyles to make a name for herself. She joined the Clemson Black Student Union and now serves as the organization’s president. She is a second-year assistant attorney general for Clemson Undergraduate Student Government (CUSG). She’s also served on the sexual assault awareness committee for CUSG’s judicial board.
Lyles is quick to credit CONNECTIONS for helping make her stay at Clemson a memorable one. She is a sociology and Pan African Studies double major who hopes to pursue a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership following graduation next May. She hopes to use her experience studying abroad in Cuba this past summer to address sustainability and food insecurity in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Lyles is far from the only current peer mentor who has taken advantage of the program by discovering campus resources. Tayler Smith, a junior, originally joined CONNECTIONS as a means to meet more students of color. What she found was endless networking possibilities and leadership opportunities.
Smith was elected as president of the Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (MAPS) in May and is also a member of Sister 2 Sister and Paws for PA. She’s a psychology major who hopes to ultimately be a physician’s assistant.
“I missed out on this program my first year,” Smith said. “But I really enjoy the mentorship aspect of it. I’m excited to begin a relationship with my three mentees.”
That relationship began in earnest on August 23-24 as more than 120 students packed up and headed to Pleasant Ridge Camp & Retreat Center in Greenville County for a full day and a half of team-building between the mentees and their peer leader counterparts.
Home to several Clemson University retreats over the years, such as Fraternity and Sorority Life and most recently the newest cohort of the President’s Leadership Institute, the space was identified back in 2017 as an ideal spot for a program that had seen the number of mentees grow by more than 30 percent from the previous year’s retreat.
“We looked into this space because we needed more room for breakout sessions, and Pleasant Ridge really satisfies it from that perspective,” said DeOnte Brown, interim associate dean of students and director of Student Transitions and Family Programs. “Early on, the students don’t really know who’s who because we are such a big program. The retreat is a way to get everyone together, come with an open mind and really learn about one another — especially as they get focused on all the other pieces of their Clemson experience.”
After bussing nearly an hour away from Clemson to the center, Dumas began the retreat by introducing professional staff, graduate assistants and then mentors and mentees. She spoke about the history of CONNECTIONS. She explained its purpose and the five pillars. Finally, she concluded the overview by showing a graphic illustrating all the different student organizations this year’s mentors are a part of on campus. The idea was to show mentees the breadth of areas available to be better connected to the Clemson community. Staff also spent time showing mentors how to use CU Navigate and teaching mentees about TigerQuest, online tools designed to aid in their networking opportunities.
After lunch, the mentees rotated through several specialty areas to hear different presentations and be introduced to a variety of issues facing today’s students. They learned about campus safety and support by conducting role playing and discussing stigmas surrounding serious issues, such as suicide. Mentees were asked questions about social identity development and the role it plays in potential discriminations that are seen on a college campus. Another group held a session on academics and professional development opportunities.
Each breakout group of mentees also heard from several mentors on the matter of campus engagement and student involvement. One by one, mentors talked about all of the different organizations they were representing during the retreat. For Kiah Morris, she was wearing a Minority Business Student Association t-shirt. Olivia Loynes was representing the student advisory board for the College of Education. Jalil Thompson touched on the National Society for Black Engineers and its impact on his experience.
Morris, who led the campus involvement session as one of four senior peer mentors, said prioritization was critical to making a successful transition to Clemson.
“Don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed,” she pleaded with each group of mentees. “It’s an easy thing to do coming into college. Do your work early, so you can do the things you enjoy later.”
There was plenty of time for enjoyment over the course of the retreat as well. Some students played basketball, while others enjoyed down time at the pool. Others zip lined — many for the first time — in pairs.
Following dinner the first night, Dumas introduced what is known as the privilege walk.
“We line students up and read statements such as, ‘I can speak multiple languages,’” she said. “That is a privilege, so the student steps forward. Another example may be, ‘I was raised in a middle or upper class home.’ They may take another step forward. So at the end of the exercise, it’s an opportunity for people to see that even though we share identities as people of color, we’re all on different journeys and from different backgrounds.”
On day two, they held an affirmation circle. It’s composed of an outer circle and an inner circle. Statements are read aloud and students on the outer circle get up and tap other students on the inner circle who may have impacted their CONNECTIONS experience in a positive way, or by exhibiting quiet leadership.
At the end, students and staff gathered for a large group photo and filled out assessments of the retreat.
McCranie loved everything about it.
“I love learning about people and the world around me,” she said. “I love being involved. On day one of the retreat, I wore a t-shirt from a youth leadership program known as BRIDGES. They have a motto that says, ‘I am a Bridge Builder. I am a leader who can lay aside individual, social, economic and cultural differences to work for the benefit of all.’ It’s something I was involved with since high school. To me, it says that even though we’re the same as people, our experiences are different.
“That’s why I love CONNECTIONS and I love living in Holmes Hall with all of my buddies. It’s peaceful, it’s fun and we’re already close — even though we’ve only been here a couple of weeks.”