When a student’s grandmother died, Lisa Jackson drove two hours from Clemson University’s main campus to Columbia to help the student get home to her family.
Other students go to her for advice on everything from scheduling their classes to whether they should opt into retirement programs at their jobs. Some just want to talk to get problems off their chests.
Jackson’s job title is associate director of PEER in Clemson University’s PEER & WISE program, but to the students in her care, she is something more.
They call her “Mama Lisa.”
“I take it as an honor because when someone calls you Mama, it means something special,” she said. “When they call me Mama Lisa, it means I’m on point and they consider me mom away from home.”
Jackson’s service came sharply into focus near the end of the spring semester when WSPA-TV’s “Your Carolina” named her a finalist for its Remarkable Women award and featured her in a profile.
“In the Clemson Family, students see Lisa as the mom,” said Serita Acker, the executive director of PEER & WISE. “It makes parents feel good to know they are handing over their children to someone who cares.”
On a recent morning, a group of students were studying outside Jackson’s office in the PEER & WISE suite in Freeman Hall. The program aims to increase diversity in engineering and science by supporting students with a wide range of initiatives, including mentoring, counseling, tutoring, networking and career-development opportunities.
Among the students outside Jackson’s office was Travis Draughn, a junior majoring in chemical engineering who is interested in careers in process engineering or pharmaceuticals after graduation.
With his biological mother back home in Spartanburg, Jackson stands in as his Clemson mother, Draughn said.
“It just feels like family,” he said. “She will keep you on track. She will ask you hard questions, but at the same time, you know that she loves you and that she wants the best for you.”
Jackson was working at the state Department of Employment and Workforce in 2016 when she applied for the Clemson job and got it. A year later, she began pursuing her Master of Business Administration through the University.
The experience helped her relate to her students. She was older than most of the other students in her classes and one of the few women. Many of the students who find their way to PEER & WISE are among the few people of color and women in their classes.
“I’ve seen it through their eyes,” Jackson said. “When I live in it, it’s really in my lap, so I really had to practice what I preach– going in there and saying, ‘I am worthy, I deserve this spot, I earned it’ and doing the work, applying what I learned in real life to the classroom.”
Students shouldn’t expect Mama Lisa to accept excuses for avoiding homework. While studying for her MBA, she worked full-time and commuted nearly an hour to Greenville for her classes, catching dinner on the way.
“Not only that, I got to go home to a husband and grandbaby,” Jackson said. “Who is tired now?”
Julio Rodriguez, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, said that Jackson stands out as one of the most influential people to him at Clemson.
“She is always providing me with the resources I need,” said Rodriguez, who is president of the Clemson chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. “When I need a flier sent out, she is quick to respond. Something that I take seriously, she takes seriously, and that’s something I look for in a person.”
Jackson is now in CU Grow, a program that is helping her build her skillset and network with colleagues across the University.
“The things we’ve talked about and covered in CU Grow have been nothing short of amazing and have helped me to think about even going further,” she said.
Jackson is considering pursuing a Ph.D. in educational leadership in part to set an example for her students. Her more immediate concern was getting ready for a three-week summer program that will allow a group of incoming freshmen to get a jump-start on classes and familiarize themselves with campus.
“The next big thing for me,” she said, “is to take PEER & WISE to another level.”
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