Empowerment is described as “the process of becoming stronger or more confident.” Members of the Clemson Family are known for lifting our fellow Tigers – from their time as students throughout their journey as alumni. Belva White ’87 felt that empowerment through her experiences with faculty, staff and her fellow students when she joined the Clemson Family in 1983. Four years can feel like a small blip on life’s radar; however, for Belva, and many others like her, the four years spent on the Clemson campus was life changing. It is her Clemson Experience that inspired Belva to make an impact on the lives of others and empower them to become stronger and more confident in their lives.

Belva grew up in Marion, South Carolina. Her parents owned a farm, and her mother worked as a bookkeeper for T. Carroll Atkinson, Jr. at his John Deere dealership. Having served as president of the IPTAY Club, Mr. Atkinson shared his devotion for Clemson with Belva at a young age. With his influence and so many others, Belva cannot remember a time when Clemson was not a part of her life. She attended football games in her youth and watched her brother – and future sister-in-law – thrive as Clemson students. Belva was determined to follow in his footsteps and attend Clemson – so much so that she turned down several offers for tennis scholarships from other colleges.  

During Belva’s freshman year, her father was diagnosed with cancer. At the same time, double-digit inflation and interest rates took a toll on farm families. Belva was determined to find a way through these challenges. She applied for financial aid and Pell Grants, and to supplement the cost, she worked in the dorms as a front desk attendant, picking up as many shifts as possible. While many college friends enjoyed holiday breaks, Belva used them to earn money – whether working in Carroll Atkinson’s hardware store, teaching tennis lessons, working dorm hours or various other jobs she could find.

Eventually, the long hours of working began to affect her grades. This is when a Clemson professor forever changed her life. Belva was enrolled in a tax course with Dr. Jim Turner, and he began to notice her declining grades. When he asked, Belva explained that she had to work extra hours to help make ends meet. Shortly after their conversation, Dr. Turner called Belva and offered to pay her the same salary to work in his yard that she would earn all day in the dorm. However, she had to agree to work for the Turners on Saturday mornings and use the rest of the weekend to study. Because of this extraordinary act of kindness, Belva reduced her hours at the lower-paying desk job and began focusing more on her end of the deal.   

Belva recalls another memory of the Turners when she dropped by Dr. Turner’s office following an on-campus interview. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Turner called and offered to take her shopping. They went to an exclusive clothing store in Greenville, and the Turners purchased Belva two beautiful and very expensive professional suits for her future interviews. Belva remembers them telling her that they wanted to make sure she was fully prepared for the bright future that lay ahead. For this and many other acts of kindness, it was abundantly clear that the Turners were committed to providing the support she needed to succeed.

Belva found out later that Dr. Turner and his wife “adopted” Clemson students every year. They looked out for them, guiding these students on their unique Clemson journey. The Turners had a fundamental impact on Belva’s life – and she has never forgotten it. Reflecting back on their remarkable generosity, Belva says, “He was a faculty member who didn’t have to do any of this, and it has been a major influence in my life and inspired me to pay forward everything that was done for me – both through my work in higher education and my philanthropic support for future generations.”

In addition to everything the Turners did for her, an encounter with a Clemson staff member also made a lasting impact on Belva. The August before her senior year, she was in Marion working at the hardware store. Concerned she had not heard from Clemson’s financial aid office, Belva called and after a long wait time, Miriam Wilson answered. Miriam found Belva’s file, asked a number of probing questions, and listened. Belva assured her the application was accurate, even if somewhat hard to believe, and further explained that without financial assistance, she would not be able to return to Clemson for her senior year. Scheduled to return to Clemson in three days, Belva’s world turned upside-down and a very different future flashed before her. After a pause, Miriam told her to pack her bags, return to Clemson, and to come directly to her office. When Belva arrived at Miriam’s office, she discovered that she was getting the financial assistance she needed to finish her degree.

I still remember that overwhelming sense of relief. Without her taking that extra minute to answer my call, to have empathy, and to listen to me and my story, I would have had a very different life. And as I think about that now, and where I am today, I realize that these same defining moments happen for students every day. I hope they have a Miriam, but I also know every Miriam needs a donor behind them to support their efforts to help students in those situations. She, and probably an unknown donor, just really came through for me. It’s my turn now.

It was a significant event that impacted her life trajectory, leading her to become a certified public accountant after graduating from Clemson in 1987 with a B.S. in accounting and then earn an MBA from Goizueta Business School at Emory University.

Belva’s estate planning gift for Clemson was inspired by that moment. She knows there are students like her still out there – struggling to find a way to afford college. They are struggling to follow their life’s passions and pursue a degree that will transform their lives. Belva reflects, “My parents told me that education is the one thing no one can ever take away from you, and they were so right.” Belva hopes by sharing her experience, she can reiterate to university staff members that they play a crucial role in the lives of college students. Having now been a staff member at Emory University for 20 years, Belva uniquely understands the significant role staff play, and she wants to find a way to honor Miriam and inspire staff to continue the good work they are doing to support students each day.

Belva has made a commitment to help future generations of students. Her gift will support students in the School of Accountancy who have demonstrated financial need. She wants to alleviate the stress for students – like her – who are worried about how they are going to pay tuition and bills and who spend time working instead of studying. Belva describes herself as a hard worker who needed a little help. She says, “I worked hard, and Clemson inspired and honored that.” For students like her, she wants to support them, knowing they have the potential to be excellent contributors to their local communities and around the world. By helping these students cross the finish line, Belva is confident that they will remember her generosity and the difference it made in their lives – and in turn, be inspired to lift others along the way. She describes them as “top of heart” students, and she is less interested in their class rank in terms of grades. She appreciates their passion and heart to reach their goals and make a positive difference – just like she did.

Throughout our lives, we have experiences that influence and inspire us – people and places that change the trajectory of our lives. Clemson and the Clemson Family did this for Belva. Her Clemson education and experiences laid the foundation for her life, and through current and future gifts, she is ensuring that others will have the opportunity to build their life’s foundation. She says, “With planned giving, you have an opportunity to represent the many things that are important to you.”

The basis of Belva’s generosity is empowering others, and yet her generosity goes much farther than just financial support. Entering what was once a male-dominated profession, Belva recalls how the tides had changed when she entered accounting at Clemson. She was actually surrounded by other females. It was a new era, and she credits her mother’s generation for paving their path. Her mother was a bookkeeper, and Belva remembers visiting her at work and playing with the computers. Belva says, “I look at her generation as opening the doors. Then we started going through them with a sense of urgency.” They were busting through the doors of a male-dominated profession, and they felt a certain pressure to “not blow it,” she says. Just as her mother’s generation had paved their path, Belva felt a responsibility to pave the path for the next generation of female leaders. She says, “We were strong girls becoming women – entering a profession that was dominated by men.” She adds, “Female leaders should always try to hold the door open for future women to walk through.”

Women are critical players across numerous professions, and their role in leadership is still growing and evolving. With fellow Tigers like Belva, Clemson women have the role models they need to take their industries to the next level. Early on, Belva remembers that women didn’t always lift one another up. The perception was often that there wasn’t room for more than one woman at the top, and it created competition instead of support. As women have accepted more leadership roles, they have realized the importance of raising one another up – advocating for their fellow females. And one thing Belva wants to share with them is this: “It’s a lot more fun when you aren’t crossing the finish line alone.” She stresses how women can collaborate and support one another as they move in a shared direction, walking the path together. Our missions are best accomplished when we have advocates around us who share the same goals and vision.

To the female students of today and tomorrow, Belva says, “The world is going to look much different in 20 years, so keep learning and stay relevant. It isn’t enough to ‘be good’ – you must also ‘do good’.”

Belva remains connected to Clemson, returning for football games with her brother, Dwayne, his wife Melanie and their two sons, Jesse and Lee, over the years. Belva, Dwayne and Melanie have passed their love of Clemson down to the next generation, all earning degrees from Clemson. And through her continued support to our great University, Belva will keep sharing her love of Clemson with future generations of Tigers.

Belva credits the Turners, Miriam and her extended Clemson Family for the amazing success she has enjoyed during her life. Belva’s story is one of perseverance, overcoming adversity and having a determined spirit to succeed.  She is an inspiration to all of us. Belva has a huge heart and plans to use her gifts of time, talent and treasure to impact future generations of students. Through her professional accomplishments and empowering spirit, she stands as a beacon of hope for women who will follow in her footsteps, breaking through the glass ceiling and leading in the world. Previous generations of women opened the door for Belva’s generation, and in turn, she encourages women Tigers of all generations to do their part to empower and ensure the doors remain open for those who follow.

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