CLEMSON — Todd Schweisinger still lives in the house he bought for $60,000 when he was a Ph.D. student and drives the same 1988 minivan he’s had since he was a teen.
It’s not that Schweisinger can’t afford a bigger house or a newer car. He makes a comfortable salary at Clemson University as a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering and undergraduate lab coordinator.
Schweisinger shuns luxuries because they aren’t in line with his life goals. He has bigger plans, and donating $2 million to Clemson is at the top of his list.
As the holiday giving season goes into full swing, donors across the country will be deciding how to direct their charitable dollars, but few will be able to top Schweisinger in ambition and sacrifice.
Schweisinger, 42, has pledged 95 percent of his estate to the university to establish an endowment that will fund scholarships for students. He doesn’t have the full $2 million yet, but he’s working on it by saving and investing in real estate.
“I feel like I’m living the dream,” Schweisinger said. “I have my health. I have my happiness, and I have financial independence. I worried about money for a long time, and I don’t worry about money anymore. That’s really liberating.”
Schweisinger moved to Clemson for graduate school in 1997 after graduating from the University of California-Irvine with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He now has a master’s degree and a Ph.D., both in mechanical engineering from Clemson.
In those early days at Clemson, Schweisinger had to take out student loans to pay tuition and other expenses. He later secured some assistantships and was able to wean himself off the loans.
But just as he did, Schweisinger was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Insurance premiums alone cost him $500 a month, which was about half his earnings at the time, he said.
Schweisinger had to go back to the student loans.
“I ended up borrowing about $80,000 by the time I graduated, which is all paid off now,” he said. “It was easy for me to do because once I graduated, rather than getting these things everyone else was buying, I said, ‘I’m going to live like a graduate student.’”
The van isn’t Schweisinger’s only vehicle. As a backup, he keeps a 1982 pickup that he originally bought to haul his kayak to the mountains.
A new car, he said, just doesn’t line up with his life goals.
“Let’s say I go out and buy a new luxury car,” Schweisinger said. “That car is just going to devalue over time, and insurance payments are going to go up. Maintenance costs are going to go up. I don’t know much about working on all the electronics.”
Schweisinger stuck around at Clemson after getting his Ph.D. in 2007 because Imtiaz Haque, who was then department chair in mechanical engineering, offered him a job as undergraduate lab coordinator.
“I was like, ‘I totally need to eat — this is great,” he recalled.
A semester later, a job opened up when a lecturer left the university. The lecturer job and the coordinator job were merged, and that’s what Schweisinger has been doing ever since.
Schweisinger, who is unmarried and has no children, has maintained his frugal lifestyle, always asking himself whether purchases are in line with his long-term life goals.
His No. 1 goal is creating an endowment that will fund at least one scholarship in perpetuity. If investments return about 3 percent, he figures the endowment needs to be about $1 million to provide an annual scholarship that pays tuition and other expenses.
Schweisinger has set his sights on contributing $1 million before he dies and leaving another $1 million as a bequest. He has been doing estate planning with Jovanna King, principal gifts senior director in Clemson’s Office of Development.
“I’ve given her my will and testament that says 95 percent of my estate would go to Clemson, and they are beneficiaries of everything I have,” Schweisinger said.
King said that Schweisinger truly understands about giving back, not only in time but resources. It was remarkable, she said, that he arrived at Clemson as an out-of-state graduate student, fell in love with the place and now works to help students and the administration.
“I’m a huge fan, and I’m very grateful for what he’s done for Clemson,” she said. “He’s just amazing.”
Schweisinger has bought properties around his home as an investment and eventually a place for his parents to move.
He got the down payment by selling a collection of hip-hop memorabilia, including turntables and speakers used by some of the genre’s founding fathers.
Schweisinger’s father, Craig, owned Skateland U.S.A., a Compton skating rink that provided a venue for rappers to perform in the 1980s. The N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton,” featured a scene in which Dr. Dre brings the group to Skateland, where they are surprised to find the crowd already knows their song lyrics.
Todd remembers working at the roller rink for $4 an hour starting when he was 10. The rink gave the family a presence in hip-hop history, but the recording-industry fortunes that helped make Dre one of the wealthiest entertainers alive never found their way into the Schweisinger bank account.
Craig said that his son, the younger of two children, was always good at saving. If he wanted a new video game, he could focus and save his money quickly.
Now, Todd is saving for Clemson instead.
“I think it’s purpose of family,” Craig said. “He felt that Clemson was where he wanted to spend his career, period. He was going to spend his life in Clemson and be buried in the Clemson cemetery, from what I can imagine. His life is Clemson. That’s what his life is about. It has been since he got there.”
In his spare time, Todd volunteers for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Upstate and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. When he goes on vacation, he visits his parents in Las Vegas or friends in California and Indiana.
He traces the philanthropic spirit that runs so strongly in him now to a workshop on work-life balance. He recalls asking: “Why do we have to live our life to be serving or helping someone?”
The answer he received was, “Because that’s what makes people happy.”
“I thought about it and was like, ‘Yes, that’s totally true,’” he remembered. “I didn’t know that was true for everyone. But I think that living a life in the service of others is what is most fulfilling for me.”
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