CLEMSON, South Carolina — You’ll have to forgive Madeline Cordell if she seems a little anxious for Thursday’s 9:30 a.m. commencement at Clemson University. After all, the graduating senior has had a close brush with embarrassment before.
“I almost took out the principal at my high school graduation,” she laughed. “I always seem to trip when I’m on stage. My family’s waiting to see what will happen.
“Maybe I’ll wear flip flops instead of heels.”
More on that in a moment.
ENGINEERING AND FOOTBALL
Cordell is a native of Alexandria, Virginia, but her family roots can be traced to an institution whose home football venue is best known as Death Valley and whose fight song is the ultra-popular “Tiger Rag.”
Nope, not the one you’re thinking of.
Both of Cordell’s parents graduated from LSU, in addition to several aunts, uncles and cousins. When it came time to decide on which college to pursue her education, she narrowed her choices to three big ones — Clemson, LSU and Texas.
“I knew I wanted to study engineering and I wanted a school that was big into football,” she said.
To that end, one unique aspect in favor of the Tigers from the Atlantic Coast Conference was the fact Cordell’s older sister by two years, Corinne, attended Clemson.
She knew of the engineering program’s clout as one of the nation’s best, a fact further cemented in her mind after she shadowed a class during her visit and saw how closely professors worked with and seemed to relate to the students at Clemson.
Next on the checklist? The gridiron, of course.
Cordell’s first time in Memorial Stadium came in 2013 when Clemson hosted Georgia in the season opener.
“I sat on the Hill,” she recalled. “You couldn’t have had a better first experience. I didn’t really know anyone outside of my sister and some of her friends. But at the game, all the people around me talked to me like they knew me. One of the students handed me a pom-pom and told me to keep shaking it. It was just really cool.”
The Tigers went on to win the game and Cordell subsequently elected to make Clemson her preferred college destination.
THE ITCH TO BE INVOLVED
Once Cordell enrolled, she was told time and again to forget about trying to pull off the difficult balance between studying a rigorous engineering curriculum and joining a sorority.
Despite the naysayers, it didn’t deter her from rushing Kappa Kappa Gamma as a freshman.
“My sister was a Kappa before me,” she said. “Everywhere I had gone, I was told I wouldn’t have time to do Greek life. But my first teacher in general engineering was Dr. (Ashley) Childers. She walked into class and introduced herself and said she was a Chi Omega at Clemson. So I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
Cordell’s involvement wasn’t limited to her sorority, though. She joined the Student Affairs Advisory Board upon the urging of a family friend and longtime Clemson staffer, Rusty Guill. She had met Guill several times after her parents began annually hosting a reception for Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., area students who were Clemson bound.
Now four and a half years later, she remained active on the board, which provides valuable feedback to Vice President for Student Affairs Almeda Jacks and her staff on a number of critical university issues.
“Madeline has always been a very dependable member of our board,” Guill said. “She gives input when needed and has been one of the more vocal students who isn’t afraid to provide feedback.”
Cordell also made sure to stay active through her major. One way was through EMAG!NE, an outreach network through the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences where a diverse group of students, faculty and staff share their passions to inspire others.
She and others helped introduce engineering concepts to students of multiple disciplines, from multiple age brackets and backgrounds. In short, EMAG!NE aims to take what you learn in science classes and how it applies to the world.
“We went around teaching STEM concepts to kids,” Cordell said. “You help kids become interested in engineering, math or science. A lot of them think they can’t do it until you help them realize what engineering truly is.
“With my little brother so far away — he’s 11 years old — it’s been cool to have the opportunity to work closely with kids,” she said.
Cordell also found herself interested in the entrepreneurial side of engineering as well. She and a friend, Carman Franklin, entered the 2017 Pitch Smackdown held annually through the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership on campus. While neither felt the idea would go far, their creative gadget — something Cordell described as a “Swiss army knife for makeup” — ended up being a finalist in the annual competition. The two developed a prototype and pitched the idea to a panel of judges, who awarded $4,000 in prize money.
NOT YOUR TYPICAL INTERN
As it turned out, Cordell’s connection as a Kappa would pay big dividends midway through her Clemson career when she was in search of a summer job.
As a junior, she was walking through the concourse of Littlejohn Coliseum at Clemson’s Career Fair and came across a familiar face, Andi Patton. Her former sorority sister worked for and was on site representing the Duke Energy Corp., which provides electric power to 7.6 million retail customers in six states. Patton convinced her to take a deeper look at all Duke Energy does in the area and Cordell arranged to interview for an internship.
There was just one small problem, though.
“On my interview day, I had finished a statics and dynamics exam and was feeling a little rushed,” she admitted. “I changed into my business suit, hopped in my car and drove to Greenville. But when I reached in the back seat to get my heels, and I had forgotten them.
“So I did a panel interview in flip flops.”
Cordell landed the internship anyway and worked out of nearby Anderson, South Carolina, in the summers of 2017 and 2018 as a distribution engineer. She wasn’t stuck in an office or caught up with some of the typical intern duties, either. She was out in the field responding to calls and following up with customers.
When something failed, Cordell helped design a way to fix it. If a cable was cut, she was part of the team responsible for going out and re-laying it. In the event of a storm and power outage, she embraced Duke’s “all hands on deck” approach.
“Distribution engineers are always on site figuring out exactly what is going on,” she said. “It made for a lot of late nights, but also a lot of camaraderie.”
Cordell’s work ranged from typical everyday tasks to performing a cost analysis on the entire power grid for Southern Wesleyan University. But, admittedly, her favorite assignment was when she was asked to size the transformer for Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney’s new house.
“I think I stapled two things my entire two summers,” she said. “I got really great experience out in the field.”
THE NEXT STEP
Cordell wrapped up her final semester as a Clemson student last week. And although many of her friends have moved on, they keep in touch and even hold a “ring roll call” every football gameday, where they send group texts or messages over Snapchat and display their Clemson rings proudly.
Cordell looks forward to the holiday season for some much-deserved time off. But she’ll quickly turn the page to the newest chapter in her life after ringing in the new year. She’s moving to Charlotte, North Carolina, and will begin her career as a distribution engineer with Duke Energy on Jan. 7.
“I’ve grown so much as a person at Clemson,” she said. “I’ve had a tremendous support system. My experience can be described in a single word as ‘opportunity.’ The number of things I’ve been able to do have been a blessing.”
As she prepares for the Thursday morning ceremony, Cordell looks forward to welcoming her entire family to town to share in her accomplishment.
Whether she’s wearing heels or flip flops under her graduation gown, one thing is certain: the Cordell family will be beaming with pride. That should help ease any anxieties about navigating another graduation stage.
“It’ll definitely be emotional,” she acknowledged. “It signifies a major accomplishment. Being one of only a few females graduating in mechanical engineering makes you stand out. But more importantly, being able to stick with it and earn this degree gives me a great sense of relief and pride.”
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