By Nancy Spitler —— Photography by Ashley Jones

The generosity of Mark and Kathryn Richardson has opened the doors to education and opportunity

Josue Figueroa ’19 grew up in Estill, a tiny town of just over 2,000 along the I-95 corridor in South Carolina. To give you a sense of its isolation, Figueroa says that the closest Walmart is “more or less an hour in any direction you go.”

 For Josue and his twin brother, Jonathan, the children of Mexican immigrants, college never felt like an option. It wasn’t that the siblings weren’t bright or motivated. But no one in their family had gone to college. Higher education just wasn’t something discussed around the dinner table. There were no college savings accounts, no SAT prep classes.

 That’s not an unusual situation among students in the underfunded and underperforming high schools along what’s been called the I-95 corridor of shame.

But then, Anaisa, their older sister, took a different path.

“Our older sister, Ana, went through Emerging Scholars and came to Clemson before us, so she led the way,” said Jonathan Figueroa ’20, M ’22, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. “I never really thought about going to college until then.”

Like Ana had before them, Josue and Jonathan applied and were accepted into Clemson’s Emerging Scholars program, which is designed to help high school students from South Carolina’s I-95 corridor learn what it takes to go to college.

Throughout their junior and senior years of high school, the brothers took part in workshops, programs and college visits designed to encourage a college-going culture. Beginning the summer before sophomore year, they attended a residential experience on the Clemson campus each summer. In addition to academic work, there were team-building exercises, college access information and some fun along the way.

During those years, they visited a variety of colleges across South Carolina and Georgia. But by the end of the third summer, both Jonathan and Josue had their eyes on Clemson.

“Emerging Scholars really opened the door for us,” Josue says. “My parents didn’t have any idea what Clemson was before we got in. We’re all first-generation college students, and our family is already going to have quite a legacy here.”

Signing at Hardee’s

President and CEO of a family-owned investment and real-estate firm, Mark Richardson ’83 grew up with a different experience.

“I grew up in a family that offered access to education,” he says, “so education was always available to me. And I was very fortunate that not only did I have access, but my family had financial resources to be able to provide the opportunity.”

Growing up with resources didn’t mean Richardson was exempt from the family tradition of hard work. His dad owned several hamburger franchises, including the Hardee’s across Highway 93 from Death Valley.

“We went to a lot of [Clemson Football] games,” he remembers, “and when we went to Clemson on game days, it involved us getting there really early and picking up all the trash in the parking lot and wiping down the tables in Hardee’s before we got to go to the game.”

No one in his family had gone to Clemson, but Richardson was a standout on the football field who caught the eye of then-head coach Danny Ford. And when it came time to sign his scholarship papers, he and his parents met Coach Ford at the Hardee’s.

“I signed my football scholarship on the table in Hardee’s,” he says. “It was not a big reveal, like athletes do now. I’m on the scholarship, had a cheeseburger and iced tea, and then my parents went home.”

Richardson went on to play defensive end and was a three-year letterman on the 1981 National Championship Clemson Football team.

The First Step of Many

To most, it would seem that Josue Figueroa and Mark Richardson don’t have much in common. And in some ways, that’s true. But their stories converge in a way that has changed both of their lives — and the Emerging Scholars program — for good.

Josue and Jonathan Figueroa completed Emerging Scholars and were accepted at Clemson, Josue pursuing computer information systems and Jonathan mechanical engineering. They cobbled together a mix of financial aid and loans to cover their costs.

“There’s a lot of self-imposed pressure on first-generation Americans and first-generation college students in general wanting to do something related to STEM,” Josue Figueroa says, “and I knew I did not want to be an engineer.” Computer science, and more specifically information science, was the path he chose to pursue.

“I knew I wanted to do something that not only can support me but also something that I thoroughly enjoy doing,” he says. “As a first-generation American, it is very difficult to make that decision to prioritize your happiness over prioritizing making money. There’s a lot of self-imposed pressure of wanting to make as much money as soon as possible to support your family.”

But Figueroa’s family was supportive from the beginning, for this first step of many to come.

“I knew from the moment I heard about the program that it was a program I was going to support — it spoke to my heart, and it spoke to my head.”

Mark Richardson

Speaking to the Heart and the Head

After he graduated from Clemson with a degree in business administration, Mark Richardson completed an MBA at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 1987. But football remained an important part of his life.

Working at his kitchen table beginning in May 1987, Richardson led and directed a six-and-a-half-year NFL expansion campaign that culminated with the unanimous selection of the Carolina Panthers as the 29th franchise of the NFL on October 26, 1993. After beginning as the sole employee, he spent the next 17 years as director of business operations and president of the franchise.

Since that time, he’s served as president and CEO of his family-owned investment and real estate firm with properties across 10 states.

Clemson remained an important part of his life as well, and when Richardson was named to the Board of Trustees in 2013, he knew a lot about the University. With a degree in business administration, he had been a founding member of the College of Business’ Trevillian Cabinet (now the Senior Advisory Board). As a former athlete, he knew the ins and outs of college athletics.

But Clemson had grown and changed a tremendous amount between his graduation in 1983 and selection to the Board in 2013. Many new board members face that same challenge of refamiliarizing themselves with the entire landscape of the University. As a result, trustee meetings often include informative presentations on various programs across the University.

As Richardson’s tenure on the board took shape, certain programs began to pique his interest. Amber Lange, assistant vice president in the office of college preparation and outreach, shared a presentation about the Emerging Scholars program, whose goal is to open the door to college for talented high school students from the most economically disadvantaged parts of the state.

“I knew from the moment I heard about the program that it was a program I was going to support,” Richardson says. “It spoke to my heart, and it spoke to my head.”

Access to education was not something Richardson had taken for granted, but he hadn’t realized how difficult it is for some people to gain that access and the necessary resources. “And that’s one of the things I felt about Emerging Scholars,” he says. “I met the kids, and they’re outstanding kids. They’re very bright; they’re very energetic. They have a hunger to learn. They’re hardworking; they’re intelligent.”

And he quickly realized that Emerging Scholars was about removing the hurdles in their way.  “We can remove those hurdles,” says Richardson, “and we can offer that opportunity, offer them the access and also provide the financial support so they can have the same opportunities that I had.”

After the presentation was over, Richardson tracked down development officer Missy Penland and asked how many kids were in the program.

“At that point,” says Penland, “there were six Emerging Scholars enrolled at Clemson.”

“Why aren’t there more?” Richardson asked.

The answer: a lack of resources and a lack of funding.

All six of the students were receiving some type of financial aid, but there were gaps they were having to cover with loans. For that group, Penland says, the gap was about $40,000.

Richardson’s response? “We need to do something about that.”

Mark’s wife, Kathryn Richardson, was on board as well.

“He came home, and he’s got the tears, and then I have the tears,” she says. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ You know, there’s not a better program out there.”

“Emerging Scholars really opened the door for us. We’re all first-generation college students, and our family is already going to have quite a legacy here.”

Josue Figueroa

Communication with a Hug

In early 2016, Josue Figueroa was halfway through his sophomore year at Clemson. He was in the middle of applying to be a program adviser for the Emerging Scholars who would be coming to campus that summer.

Word was spreading about a generous gift from Mark Richardson to support Emerging Scholars, and, in particular, to provide scholarship aid — to cover those gaps not covered by federal and state assistance — for students who went on to attend Clemson. While pleased to hear about the gift, Figueroa assumed it wouldn’t apply to his situation since he was already enrolled.

Lange shared with him that the gift was being extended to those already at the University. Figueroa was shocked.

“So I was grandfathered into that generous gift that Mr. Richardson made,” Figueroa says. No more worrying about textbooks, tuition and fees. “For me, it was honestly something that I never could have imagined possible, as far as having that kind of financial stability while being in school.”

“He is a first-generation college student. But he’s not a last-generation college student.”

Mark Richardson

The 2016 spring football game would include a focus on Emerging Scholars — Josue’s older sister would be one of the speakers — and the announcement of the gift. Penland worked with Lange to bring the families of Emerging Scholars students who would benefit from the announcement to campus for the game. The Figueroa family from Estill was in attendance. 

As people were gathering beforehand, Figueroa saw Richardson. He was at a loss for words. 

“I just gave him a hug.” 

There was not a lot of conversation then, but that first meeting sparked the beginning of a meaningful relationship. 


RICHARDSON WAS INITIALLY drawn to Emerging Scholars by the idea of providing educational access to students for whom college seemed an impossible goal. As he continued to learn more about various programs in the University with an eye toward increasing access, he found others that also spoke to him. 

“We didn’t need to develop new programs,” says Richardson. “There were outstanding programs on campus already, ones that speak to our heart and speak to our mind. It’s Emerging Scholars, it’s Call Me MISTER®, it’s the ClemsonLIFE program and it’s scholarships. I would lump all of those into access to education.” 

The mission of the Call Me MISTER program is to increase the pool of available teachers from a broader and more diverse background, particularly among South Carolina’s lowest-performing elementary schools. Participants are largely selected from among underserved, socioeconomically disadvantaged and educationally at-risk communities. 

ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone) allows students with special needs the opportunity to attend Clemson and receive a college experience while learning the skills to lead independent lives. ClemsonLIFE supports the concept that enhancing academic, social, employment and life skills will better prepare students with disabilities to lead full and productive lives. 

Emerging Scholars, Call Me MISTER and ClemsonLIFE — all of these programs were successful but somewhat limited in their scope. Richardson questioned what he perceived as the small numbers of students participating in these programs. The answer was always the same. 

It was simply a matter of resources. 


FIGUEROA AND RICHARDSON have stayed in touch over the years, ever since that emotional hug in the spring of 2016. 

After Figueroa graduated from Clemson, he set off for the University of Michigan for a master’s degree in information science — another first for his family. He completed his master’s and, on a leap of faith, moved to Seattle, where he found a job in user experience research. His brother, Jonathan, recently completed his master’s in mechanical engineering at Clemson. 

Richardson and Figueroa speak of each other with a mutual respect and appreciation. Richardson is impressed with Figueroa’s hard work and determination. 

“[Figueroa]’s made the most of the opportunities that were available to him,” Richardson says. “He came to Clemson, he graduated and got a full scholarship to Michigan for his master’s degree. And I’m very excited to see where he’s going to be 10 years from now and 20 years from now.” 

For Figueroa, the financial support was life-changing, but the support and confidence of someone outside of his family has been significant as well. “Just the impact of having the sense of someone who believes in you,” he says. “As important as it is to have the love and support from my family, it’s just as important to have someone else that has invested so much into Emerging Scholars be so affirming and reassuring that they believe in you as well. It means so much to me.” 

And, Figueroa says of Richardson, “I think it says a lot about his character to be able to look into the mirror and recognize all that he’s accomplished and still find the desire to provide support and engage with others who may not have the privilege of or access to those resources. 

“At the end of the day, [Richardson]’s leveraging what he has to provide an opportunity for others who may not have had the opportunity otherwise.” 


IN NOVEMBER 2022, MARK AND KATHRYN Richardson announced a $10 million gift to Clemson with the goal of increasing access to education — through Emerging Scholars, Call Me MISTER and ClemsonLIFE but also through general scholarships and by supporting programs that strengthen teacher retention. 

Part of that gift is a $4 million challenge to Clemson friends and family. Dollar-for-dollar, up to $4 million, the Richardsons have committed to match gifts made to unrestricted scholarships, both college-specific and Universitywide. 

“For every student we’re helping today,” says Richardson, “I’m sure there are 10 more we could help if we had the resources. We’re committed to helping make those resources available and recruiting others to join us.” 

President Jim Clements calls their gift “transformational.” As a first-generation college graduate himself, Clements knows the generational change education can bring about, and he has confidence that the Clemson Family will rise to the challenge. 

“The Richardsons believe in the power of an education and know the impact a college degree has on students, families and entire communities,” he says. “Through their gift, the Richardsons are also challenging the Clemson Family to contribute to the success of our students through the Champions 4 Access to Education challenge. We know our community will step up in a big way.” 


“A LOT OF YOUNG STUDENTS only need an opportunity,” says Richardson. “That’s all they need. Create access for them. Create the financial resources for them to be able to get the education, and they will take it from there. 

“All that we’ve done is created access and created financial resources to allow them to make the most of the opportunity that’s available.” 

Josue Figueroa knows that access has changed his life and his family’s life, and he’s determined to support those who come behind him. 

“I don’t know where I’d be in my life without Emerging Scholars,” says Figueroa. “It opened the door to so many opportunities — to push myself not only to get a bachelor’s degree but to get a master’s degree. We have no idea where our life trajectory would be right now if it weren’t for Emerging Scholars. It has literally changed the life path — not only of my family but of my family to come.” 

Richardson agrees. “He is a first-generation college student. But he’s not a last-generation college student.” 

Figueroa was at a loss for words when he first met Mark Richardson, but he is still trying to articulate what Richardson’s support of Emerging Scholars has meant to him. 

“Even to this day,” Figueroa says, “I truly don’t believe that there are any words I can put together that would be enough for me to say thank you.” 

As we were preparing to go to press with this issue, we learned that the Clemson Family met the Richardsons’ challenge in a record time of five months, unlocking the Richardsons’ $4 million matching gift. Together, the Richardsons and the Clemson Family are providing Clemson students with a total of $8 million in general scholarship support. 

You can learn more about the additional gifts that made this possible and how you can continue to support scholarships at

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