Isabel Newton knew she wanted a better life as soon as she became pregnant with her daughter, Anaisa Figueroa, who was born in the small coastal mountain town of Tepic in Nayarit, Mexico, during a time of increasing hardship in that area. Newton saw what life was like for the other children in the town and became determined to provide something better for Anaisa and any future brothers or sisters she might have.
“I saw how hard people worked day in and day out just to make a living for their family,” said Newton. “Many parents didn’t even send their children to school, and that was hard for me to see.”
She knew an education could be key to her children’s success, so she decided to go to a place where they would have a better chance of attaining one: The United States of America. Newton and her then-husband migrated to the United States in 1992 and eventually settled in the tiny former railroad town of Estill, South Carolina, when Anaisa was just 1 year old. Twins Josue and Jonathan Figueroa were born in 1996 and would follow their sister through life in more ways than one.
Anaisa was a gifted student. During her sophomore year at Estill High School, her guidance counselor suggested she apply for a new program being introduced by Clemson University called Emerging Scholars. A groundbreaking outreach program, Emerging Scholars was created to establish a college-going culture among students in families from the state’s economically disadvantaged areas. At the end of the three-year program students are encouraged to apply and attend any college of their choice with an emphasis on schools in the state of South Carolina.
That sounded great to Anaisa, but, unlike her twin brothers born in the U.S., she was still an undocumented immigrant, before the DACA program was adopted in 2012. Isabel had divorced her first husband by this time and was engaged to a man named Kevin Newton, a machine worker at the Georgia-Pacific paper company. The two hurried their wedding plans to assure Anaisa could get college acceptance.
“Growing up, I had people tell me I wouldn’t ever amount to much, that I’d never be able to go to school. I don’t know if they were just trying to be realistic, but I started to believe it,” said Anaisa. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to go to college because of my legal status. Thank God Kevin stepped in and married my mom. It opened the door for our entire family.”
Josue and Jonathan watched their sister’s growing confidence as she went through the program, attending college workshops throughout the year and visiting the Clemson campus each summer. At the end of her senior year, she was accepted to Clemson as a full-time undergraduate student in health sciences, becoming the first person in the family’s history to go to college and just in time to nudge her brothers into the Emerging Scholars program as they entered high school.
“I vividly remember Ana mandating that we attend the Emerging Scholars program. She didn’t give us a choice!” laughed Jonathan. “She said ‘I don’t care about football or baseball. You’re going to this program whether you want to or not!’ At the time we didn’t fully understand why she was pushing us so hard. Looking back on it now, we so appreciate it. She was a trailblazer for us.”
Newton was overjoyed when Anaisa got accepted to Clemson with a few motherly worries mixed in. The school, with its 17,000-acre main campus and 20,000-strong student body, was 10 times the size of Estill, with a much smaller minority population.
“It was an amazing feeling and scary at the same time,” said Newton. “She always talked about wanting to go to Clemson. When she got accepted . . . I can`t explain the pride and joy that I felt in my heart.”
The twins followed their sister into Emerging Scholars and then to Clemson. Anaisa earned a bachelor’s degree in health sciences in 2014 and went on to earn another bachelor’s in medical laboratory sciences from Armstrong State University. She is a medical technician at Greenville Memorial Hospital, where she currently spends her days voluntarily suited up from head to toe to do drive-through COVID-19 testing.
Josue and Jonathan entered Clemson as freshmen in 2014 and graduated in 2019 and 2020 with degrees in computer information systems and mechanical engineering, respectively. Both are now seeking graduate degrees – Josue a Master of Science and Information at the University of Michigan and Jonathan a Master of Mechanical Engineering at Clemson.
The ripple effects do not stop there. The three Figueroas have a cousin, Vanessa Gonzales, who followed their paths and graduated from Clemson with a double major in psychology and women’s studies this past May. Her little sister, Liz, is currently a rising high school senior in the program.
As some of the few Hispanic students at Clemson, it wasn’t always a walk in the park, but they had each other and their fellow scholars to lean on.
“I definitely felt like a minority at Clemson,” said Anaisa. “At home we weren’t a minority, so even very subtle racism really affected me.”
Josue said during his and his brother’s time at Clemson the entire minority population was about 13 percent, with the Hispanic/Latinx population only at 2 percent [it has risen to 6 percent today]; a 180-degree change from Estill High School, which had a 98 percent minority student body.
“It was very much intimidating,” said Josue. “In the School of Computing I was essentially the only person in my entire department that looked like me. I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome, but I think it also fueled me to be involved on campus as much as I was. I believe in being the change that I want to see.”
To that end, all three siblings were active in student-led drives for change on campus, such as the 2016 Sikes sit-in and the 2014 petition to change the name of Tillman Hall; but arguably the biggest impact they’ve had on diversity at Clemson has been giving other young people footsteps in which to follow.
“I want to give other students like me something to look up to so they don’t have the lack of confidence that I had,” said Jonathan. “I try to keep in mind that I’m still a representation of where I’m from and I allow that to keep me humble. We’re not only representing our families but our community.”
Anaisa described how she and her brothers still get praise from the residents of Estill alongside teachers and staff from their high school.
“They’re always on Facebook saying how proud they are of us,” she laughed. “I think we’ve kind of made a name for ourselves in that town, and for Emerging Scholars. I’ve had parents come up to me with kids still in high school and tell me they’re doing everything they can to get them into the program.”
Newton says it’s hard to put into words what it’s meant to see all three of her children graduate from Clemson. It’s the culmination of the original dream that brought her to America.
“I am so proud of my three children,” she said. “I am always talking about my Clemson Tigers. My pride and joy are very hard to explain. I get very emotional when I think about them starting out at Head Start until now. The Figueroas are college graduates because they were offered the opportunity to go to Clemson University, to reach for the stars and their opportunities would be limitless. I want to thank Emerging Scholars for giving my children that opportunity.”
Amber Lange, executive director of college preparation and outreach, said the Figueroas are as much a part of Clemson to her as Tiger paws and tailgates.
“I haven’t ever been involved in Emerging Scholars without a Figueroa there,” said Lange. “I think it’s just an example of the opportunity we give. I can’t do what Josue’s doing – I can’t even pronounce his degree concentration [User Experience Research and Design/ Human-Computer Interaction]! And Jonathan – I got on his nerves about dropping a few classes. But mechanical engineering? That is one of the hardest majors at Clemson. And then there’s Ana with all her degrees – are you kidding me?”
She said it’s been humbling to witness how much the three have accomplished with the opportunity to get a college education.
“Honestly, I think they would have done that without us – their mom was not going to let them just sit at home,” said Lange. “We don’t make kids smart. They’re already smart. We’re literally just showing them how to use what they already have, and this family is the perfect example of that.”