A superstar staff member who works tirelessly to make Clemson sports programs accessible to athletes with disabilities, a beloved community member known as the “Clemson Mama” and a student leader whose selfless dedication to service has eclipsed her historic academic achievements are the recipients of this year’s prestigious Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Excellence in Service.
Three awards are presented annually by the President’s Office and the Division of Inclusion and Equity to recognize an employee, a student and a community member who have shown excellence in their service to Clemson and the surrounding community, their advocacy for social or environmental justice, and their service above and beyond their direct employment.
This year’s employee award went to Jasmine Townsend, associate professor for recreational therapy and recreational therapy program coordinator in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences. Townsend’s tireless work to provide sports and recreation opportunities to disabled students and community members has resulted in a myriad of opportunities for athletes with disabilities to engage in the same competitive athletic experiences as their able-bodied counterparts and interact with other adaptive athletes.
Among many other things, Townsend teamed up with the Campus Recreation Department to build adaptive sports into the intramural sports program, with wheelchair basketball and rugby. She also collaborated with the Clemson Athletic Department to develop a wheelchair tennis team, the first collegiate varsity adaptive athletic team in the state of South Carolina.
“Townsend exemplifies the mission behind this award. Services for people with disabilities are often overlooked in these discussions of civil rights advocacy, and Dr. Townsend is making incredible strides towards inclusion,” wrote colleague Marieke Van Puymbroeck in her nomination letter. “Clemson is lucky to have her bringing this nationally-recognized disability advocacy to campus. She is an amazing team player, a pioneer and a leader.”
Reeta Singh, a long-time volunteer and mentor to Clemson students, is the recipient of the award for a community member. Since 1991, Singh has volunteered her time and energy to make Clemson a spiritually diverse and inclusive community by serving on multiple committees, as a liaison to community organizations in surrounding counties, an adviser to student associations, playing a pivotal role in the formation of an interfaith community on campus, and hosting students at her home – among many other things.
Singh’s nominator, Associate Vice President for Strategic Alliances Tia Dumas, said Singh had transformed the student community by listening and providing comfort, love and affection to many students from all over the world. In response, and as a demonstrated sign of respect, these students call her “Clemson Mama.”
“Ms. Reeta Singh is not only a community member who embodies the University’s core values, but she also inspires others to embrace them and to pay them forward in their respective communities,” wrote Dumas. “Her commitment to Clemson University results in a global community empowered to give to others through research, creative activities, teaching and service.”
Senior economics major Ronnie Clevenstine was chosen to receive the student award. Clevenstine made history in 2021 by becoming just the fourth Clemson student to become a Truman Scholar. Still, her community service work has been so impactful it parallels her academic achievements. Clevenstine has used her knowledge of economic insecurity, food justice and public policy solutions to bring measurable change to some of the community’s most vulnerable members.
A small sample from a very long list of Clevenstine’s community service work includes being co-executive director of the Clemson Food Directive (formerly the Clemson Food Summit), which works to ensure that Clemson fulfills its obligation as a land grant university by helping struggling local farmers, especially those from underrepresented minority groups. She has developed institutional partnerships and initiated monthly discussions with food producers on and off campus.
Clevenstine has sought to educate the broader Clemson community on this critically important issue, including organizing service opportunities for students at farms and food-related non-profits and starting a publication on food to lift the voices of those who haven’t been included in local food conversations. Clevenstine is also a co-founder and executive board member of the Youth Scholars Program. This initiative works to improve the college preparation of high-achieving but socioeconomically disadvantaged elementary and middle school students from the local community.
“Ronnie easily ranks as the top student I have mentored in my 25-year career at Clemson University,” wrote professor of Sociology Catherine Mobley, one of three faculty members who wrote nomination letters for Clevenstine. “In Ronnie, I have noted wisdom and maturity beyond her years, as she exhibits a strong awareness of her privileges and her impact on others. Her own experiences likely inform this leadership quality with homelessness as a teenager. She never loses sight of the ultimate purpose of her work: to improve the day-to-day material lives of others. This quality sets Ronnie apart from others and has been essential to her success as a student leader.”
Fellow nominator and honors program professor Sarah Winslow echoed Mobley’s sentiments.
“The list of Ronnie’s accomplishments is staggering, not just for its quantity, but for its coherence around a common goal — increasing access to basic needs while expanding the definition of what we should expect those needs to include,” wrote Winslow. “Ronnie always has a singular goal in mind — how to use her vast knowledge, skills and connections to do the most good in the fairest, most humane way. She has left her mark on this University, the community and our state.”
The awards were presented Tuesday evening by President Jim Clements and Lee Gill, chief inclusion officer and special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence, during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Keynote Program in the Brooks Center for the Performing Arts.