SOMETHING TO PROVE
Paige, who is still a regular in the center’s office, began his journey to Clemson at St. James High School, a public school in Horry County. He remembers taking an AutoCAD class with Ricky Cox, who had a son at Clemson. “The teacher was really cool and hands-on with us,” Paige says. “He pushed me toward seeing what I could do in engineering.”
AutoCAD is commercial software for computer-aided design and drafting. Paige says that while he isn’t good with his hands, he enjoys creative arts and that he’s a whiz on the computer. AutoCAD gave him an outlet for his creativity.
Encouragement also came from an uncle who worked as a drafter in Columbia. “You should become an engineer, be my boss one day,” Paige remembers his uncle saying.
Paige set foot on campus for the first time in the summer before his freshman year. As part of a PEER sneak preview, he was going to participate in the Math Excellence Workshop. Paige had to catch a ride with a friend and didn’t arrive in Clemson until 10 p.m. Although he was five hours late, Sue Lasser, who recently retired as director of PEER, and a student host were still waiting for him at Clemson House.
“I really felt like it was a family,” he says.
Paige struggled with calculus in the beginning of the workshop and received a mediocre grade on his first test, but he stuck with it and put in a lot of work. “The way it was structured, you had so much help,” he says. “If you really wanted to do great, which I did, you were going to do great. It really boosted my confidence.”
Paige went on to make the dean’s list every semester except for the second semester of his junior year. “I made back-to-back 4.0’s after that because I had to prove something to someone,” he says.
CREATING MORE SUCCESS STORIES
To create more success stories, Acker has called for more outreach programs that make students aware of the opportunities in STEM as early as elementary school. Many students, especially those from families that have never been to college, will remain in the dark without such programs, Acker says.
It’s also important to have programs, such as PEER and WISE, that support underrepresented students, she says. The mentoring, academic help and opportunities to connect with industry can be transformative in a student’s college experience.
While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Paige served as a mentor and tutor for PEER. The experience made him comfortable teaching and led to an internship. He’s already seen one of his mentees graduate and go on to live out her dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
“It was great to see her grow,” Paige says. “She helped me grow as well. Just being able to play that role and see the impact I could have on someone else’s life is huge.
“You really need programs like PEER. As minority students, we just don’t have that critical mass necessary to make it comfortable to come in and do it on your own.”
Scholarships helped pay for Paige’s undergraduate education, and he graduated with no student debt. His mentoring experience also put him in a position to land a fellowship for graduate school.
Acker says that Paige’s story underscores the importance of scholarships in helping students get through college. “Several private donors have established scholarships for current and new freshman in our programs,” she says. “Their support helps us recruit and retain a diverse population in STEM. I am very grateful to all our donors. STEM is very demanding, and sometimes it takes more than four years to earn a degree. Many of our students work, and it’s not easy. Scholarships give them an opportunity to focus on their very rigorous majors.”