Beth Clements is an educator. She also happens to be First Lady of Clemson University, which is fitting, because education is at the heart of everything she does.
A native of Corning, N.Y., Clements always wanted to be a teacher. She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education and her master’s degree in reading, both from Towson University in Maryland.
“I love just being around kids,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to teach them and be a positive example. They’re so much fun and sweet, and they’re very receptive. You can share your love of learning with them, and you can see the impact it makes in their lives.”
Clements began her teaching career in Baltimore’s inner-city schools, a place that is not necessarily the top choice of many teachers. But she felt a calling to make a difference for the children who needed her the most.
“I just felt that if I’m not going to do it, then who is going to do it? I felt that it was a calling in my heart to teach those who some people might consider the least and to give my best to them and not be afraid to cross barriers. I was actually in the minority in that school, which was a good experience for me,” Clements said.
It was at Towson that she met Jim Clements, and after a year together, they got married in 1990. It was clear from the start that Jim’s career was on a fast upward trajectory. After the Clements’ first child, Tyler, was born, Clements left the classroom to focus on her family. Three years later, she had twins, Maggie and Hannah.
“Jim and I as a couple decided that one career would be the one that we would both work towards and that we would do that as a team,” she said. “Me staying home was a job. It was just choosing a different field.”
Clements said that she incorporated much of what she learned from being a teacher into parenting, with education always being a focus for her children, especially in the games they would play and the activities they did together as a family.
“I always had a lesson plan going in my head,” she said. “It was fascinating for me to see the things I had learned about child development and early childhood education playing out in my own home.”
In 2000, the Clements’ youngest daughter, Grace, was born. Around age 2, Grace was diagnosed with apraxia of speech, which is a neurological communication disorder, and hypotonia, which is low muscle tone, as well as intellectual disabilities. Clements said that the news changed everything for her and the rest of the family.
“I know for certain that Grace was meant to be in our family, but in the beginning, when she was first diagnosed, I believe I went through all the stages of grieving. Looking back, I didn’t know I was going through that at the time, but I now realize that I had to go through that grief and feel it to get to acceptance,” Clements said.
Clements said she worried about the impact that Grace’s challenges would have on their three older children, because so much of her time and focus would need to be spent on Grace, but she says those worries were unfounded. She believes that growing up with a sibling who has special needs only made a positive impact on Ty, Hannah and Maggie.
“Our family is closer and more bonded because of Grace. We just wouldn’t be the same people without her in our lives,” she said. “My older kids all have such big hearts and are so compassionate for others, and I think that comes as a result of having a sister who isn’t typical. They all grew into better human beings because of Grace, and it makes me really proud.”
Hannah has even become a special education teacher, helping kids who have challenges similar to Grace’s. She earned her master’s degree in special education from Clemson in 2020 and teaches at Robert Anderson Middle School in Anderson.
“We named her Grace before we knew that she had any special needs. The name Grace means ‘undeserved gift from God,’ and she certainly has been a gift to our family,” Clements said.
Grace will graduate from Pickens High School this May, and she plans to participate in Project Search, a partnership between Baptist Easley Hospital and the School District of Pickens County to teach young adults with special needs job skills through hands-on internships. After that, she hopes to enroll in the ClemsonLIFE program, which Clements says has been a “dream restored” for her.
“As two educators, Jim and I always dreamed for all of our kids to go to college. It was very hard for us to realize that was not going to happen for Grace. But when Jim was interviewing for the job here, I learned about ClemsonLIFE, and there was suddenly this big slice of hope. Now it is very close to being a reality for her,” she said.
Clements now serves on the ClemsonLIFE Advisory Board, which allows her to educate others about the program and raise funds to support it. She also serves on the College of Education Advancement Board, and more often than not, if Jim is at a university event, Beth is there, too.
“I love the opportunity to be with students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and student-athletes,” said Clements. “I love to help bring awareness to the university and raise money for the university, which allows us to make a difference. I feel blessed to be able to work alongside my husband in that role.”
She also is grateful that her role as First Lady has allowed her to raise awareness for people with intellectual disabilities and other special needs.
“I feel extra blessed that Jim’s career has allowed us to have somewhat of a platform to expose the world to someone who learns differently,” she said. “We tend to segregate people with special needs, and as a result, we don’t learn from each other. We think we’re more different than we’re alike, but when you put everybody together, we’re a lot alike.”
Clements said her favorite thing about being at Clemson is the way everyone has embraced her family, especially Grace.
“I’m so grateful for the Clemson Family because people just love her, and they tell us and they show her and that matters. That is one of the best things about being here is seeing the way people are drawn to her,” she said. “The number of people Grace teaches every day is amazing — everywhere we go, people are always watching and learning.”