Clemson University is home to one of the most unique academic experiences in the nation, Clemson LIFE. The Clemson LIFE program aims to provide a collegiate experience that prepares young men and women with intellectual disabilities for competitive employment and independent living through academic coursework and career exploration.
Clemson LIFE students live on campus in a four-bedroom apartment with meal plans for the dining halls. These on-campus living arrangements provide an opportunity to learn how to live independently with the help of an Independent Living Assistant (ILA). Outside of the classroom, Clemson LIFE students are given an opportunity to live an almost normal college life.
Clemson LIFE is supported by more than 650 graduate and undergraduate student volunteers as Independent Living Assistants, Classroom Assistants, Activity Peers, and Lunch or Dinner Peers. This program allows student volunteers to befriend and mentor Clemson LIFE students while providing them with social interactions with their peers at Clemson.
Student-athletes at Clemson have even been able to get involved with mentoring Clemson LIFE students thanks to the work of Tiger Impact. Tiger Impact is an organization founded in 2021 that arranges Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals for student-athletes and local underserved charities in the greater Clemson area and beyond. These student-athletes can team up with a charity they care about and volunteer their time serving the community and marketing their chosen charity’s work. Tiger Impact uses donations to fund the NIL deals with student-athletes. To learn more about the work that Tigers do for the community or how you can support Clemson’s student-athletes and their charities, click here.
One of the many student-athletes who have teamed up with Tiger Impact is Jenna Thompson. A Charlotte native, Jenna is a junior accounting major who plays tennis for Clemson. Her high school tennis career was awe-inspiring, seeing that she never lost a game (80-0), won four straight 4A State Championships, and was ranked No. 1 in North Carolina since she was 10.
When it came down to choosing where to continue her tennis career, she was down to Wake Forest and Clemson. She came to visit and fell in love with everything we have here at Clemson. The coaches, the new tennis facilities, and the close proximity to home won her over as she decided where to go. “Clemson has a family feel,” a phrase most recruits echo after they come to visit. The family atmosphere surrounding Clemson was essential to Jenna, who eventually decided to become a Tiger.
As a Tiger, Jenna has amassed a 40-24 singles record across three seasons. So far, Jenna’s favorite memories of her time at Clemson were the long-awaited win against the University of South Carolina on Tuesday, February 14th, when they won 4-2, and last year’s ACC Tournament. “Virginia Tech beat us the year before, and this year I won the match to clinch the game, and when I won, everyone stormed my court, and I was in the middle of the circle while everyone was celebrating.”
Because of her love of helping people, Jenna got involved with Tiger Impact and chose Clemson LIFE as the charity she would help promote. Jenna has an uncle with special needs, and she loved spending time with him growing up. He inspired her to work with Clemson LIFE because she felt she could connect well with the students. Jenna’s role with Clemson LIFE is more than just promoting the program to raise awareness; she also spends time hanging out with the students and mentoring them. She will meet them for meals or coffee and hang out with them. Jenna is helping to give these students a “normal” college experience, which has not always been possible for kids with intellectual disabilities.
Thanks to Clemson LIFE and the many student volunteers like Jenna, these kids are living their best lives and learning skills that will help them gain independence someday. Jenna loves being able to spend time with them, stating, “They are great people, and I have made tons of friends through them.” She sees and interacts with her Clemson LIFE students all the time on campus and at sporting events. They come out and support Jenna and the rest of the women’s tennis team at their matches, and their presence and encouragement is felt by the whole team.
Jenna emphasized that the LIFE students are just normal people, coming to these sporting events and having fun like regular college students. Clemson’s women’s tennis team also has a Clemson LIFE student as their team manager, who Jenna spoke highly of in the interview. Timmy comes to the matches, cheers them on, and helps the team warm up. Jenna loves the opportunity she has been given to work with LIFE students such as Timmy. They have taught her lessons, and she has grown personally from being a friend and mentor in this role.
Because of the new NIL laws and Tiger Impact organization, student-athletes like Jenna are afforded the opportunity to not only volunteer but promote and raise awareness on social media. Experiences like this not only benefit the charity and the people the charity directly impacts but also benefit the student-athletes. Jenna said Timmy has taught her how to enjoy each day and that one has to always remain positive in life, “Timmy has been a joy to be around.”
Timmy chose to come to Clemson to have the best experience in life and to become an awesome team manager for the Clemson Women’s Tennis team. When asked why he volunteered, Timmy said, “I decided to become one one day,” he also likes to watch them play. Timmy also enjoys basketball, golf, and football. He played Unified basketball a year ago, where he glows in recalling the time that he hit a buzzer-beater to win a game.
As team manager, Timmy has responsibilities like cheering on the team, picking up balls, getting the girls some water and giving high fives. Timmy and Jenna have a sweet relationship. Jenna is so kind and patient with him and lights up when he is around. Timmy enjoys cheering Jenna on when she plays her matches. Timmy says of the women’s tennis matches, “they make his entire year special.”
Timmy’s favorite match came about a month ago when Jenna had him come down from the stands to be with the team on the court while the last match was being played. They had to be very quiet during the point, but after a point was scored, they could be loud and cheer. Timmy enjoyed this opportunity to go down and watch the game. After Clemson, Timmy wants to get a job and get paid. Timmy wants people to know he is “brave, friendly, joyful, happy,” and, according to Jenna, “good with the girls too.” The way these two interact is very special and heartwarming. In spending time around them it becomes very clear that this is the most genuine of friendships. The two of them truly enjoy each other’s company, and their moods are evidently improved by the presence of the other.
Clemson LIFE has a variety of volunteer opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. Clemson offers classes you can take that coincide with a volunteer position to learn more about how to be an effective mentor to the Clemson LIFE students. If you or someone you know would like to volunteer and get involved with Clemson LIFE like Jenna, visit their website here.