More than 2,000 young men and their chaperones from universities, high schools and organizations across the country descended on the Greenville Convention Center this week to attend Clemson University’s fourth annual Men of Color National Summit. This year’s event was the biggest yet, with keynote presentations by NBA great Magic Johnson, the 82nd United States attorney general Alberto Gonzales, television host Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and many others.
The summit’s purpose is to foster a more inclusive, supportive and diverse South Carolina by helping close the opportunity gap for young men of color with the promise of new pathways to higher education.
The previous three years of the summit have made waves through South Carolina’s academic communities and attracted attention from educational institutions and media nationwide. It’s success spotlights Clemson’s ability to execute a very large, high-impact event outside the traditional boundaries of the campus.
Tonyia Stewart, director of graduate recruitment and inclusion in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and the volunteer chair for the summit, said orchestrating an event so grand would be impossible without an army of faculty, staff and students who give their time and energy as volunteers.
“Our volunteers come from all over the university and a few from outside Clemson,” said Stewart. “They are absolutely awesome! We so appreciate everything they do. They take time away from their work to support this event, and they work hard. Very hard. We are so proud of them.”
That pride is felt on both sides of the volunteer application form said Tan Davis, a Clemson human resources strategic consultant and volunteer. She said the summit’s primary mission, which is to close the opportunity gap for young African-American and Hispanic men who might not be inspired to aim high in life otherwise, instantly spoke to her. Witnessing first-hand the transformative effect the event has on the young attendees moved her deeply, a feeling that brought her back as a volunteer for the second year in a row.
“The first time I heard Clemson was hosting the Men of Color Summit, I wanted to shout to the world, ‘This is what commitment to inclusion looks like!’” said Davis. “Like so many of us who’ve spent a lifetime dedicated to the work of diversity, inclusion and equity – it’s awesome to see it realized in such a profound way. Every component of the summit experience is exciting and vibrant– from the customer-friendly volunteer training, to standing at the top of the escalator and welcoming a sea of young and energized future scholars.”
Stewart said between 50 and 60 volunteers helped the first two years of the summit. That number increased to more than 80 this year, with graduate students and staff being the “heavy lifters.” Organizing and logistics for so many summit attendees is no small task, but training sessions in the weeks before along with accumulated experience had the team operating like a seasoned university division by the time the convention center doors opened.
Volunteers in bright blue shirts can be seen everywhere one looks during the event. They provide a wide range of services, from setting up rooms, registering participants, acting as greeters, selling merchandise and working breakout sessions to ensuring each speaker is on time, introduced and out of the room before the next presenter. Last year, the position of volunteer lead was implemented to check everyone in and make sure all the “must fill” jobs are assigned.
Veteran volunteers say the reward is well worth sacrificing a few hours of their time.
“The main reason I’m volunteering again is to show young African-American men that Clemson is indeed a place that welcomes diversity, and I want to be a part of the movement to continue making that happen,” said Deveraux Williams, an information technology and training manager for Clemson’s University Relations division who, like Davis, has volunteered all four years.
Williams said he’s been a man on a mission to give back to the community surrounding his alma mater since earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Clemson in 2004 as well as a master’s in human resource development in 2017. He has been particularly drawn to volunteer because he can relate to the summit’s target audience on many different levels.
“I believe Men of Color is an important event because we focus in an area that is very underrepresented: non-student athlete African-American and Hispanic males,” said Williams. “We are able to invite very influential people from around the country who look like them to talk to them and tell them that they do in fact matter.”
Williams said he takes a step back each day of the summit to smile and take in the thousands of bright-eyed and motivated young men swarming the convention center. It feels great to be a part of it all. He reflects on the original vision of the event, and how much it’s accomplished in four short years.
“It’s nothing short of extraordinary.”