Graduation Spotlight: Boykin Leaving Strong Legacy

May 8, 2020

`College can be a daunting adjustment for some. Even the most gifted scholars struggle with the process of acclimating to a new home, meeting new friends, and tackling a rigorous course load.

For Zach Boykin, it’s why he opted to take part in a three-week introductory program that allowed him to live on Clemson University’s main campus the summer before his freshman year. Administered by Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention (PEER), the optional course offered a glimpse of what his first year on campus would be like while allowing him to meet other students.

“At the time the program was known as FIRE — Foundations in Research Experience — and it honestly changed my entire experience,” he said. “I met some great people and that set me up to be successful over the next four years.”

Boykin grew up in Camden, about 40 minutes from the heart of South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. He has three siblings whose ages range from 28 to 36, making him by far the youngest member of his family. The summer of 2015 proved to be invaluable for Boykin, not only because of the challenging nature of the transition he faced as an aspiring engineer, but also because it introduced him to several people who would go on to positively influence his Clemson experience. 

In a sense, Boykin is a first-generation college student. His mother completed a bachelor’s degree but did it via a non-traditional path. She went back to school after having her first two children.

“I was the first to be sent off to college,” he said. “We didn’t know how to apply for financial aid or register for classes … any of that stuff. It was a big learning curve.”

Boykin adjusted quickly after applying to two schools, Clemson and North Carolina State University. Because of his affinity for engineering, he admitted to receiving a friendly “push” from teachers at Camden High School toward Clemson’s strong reputation in the field.

Scholarship Just the Beginning

He was one of more than 57,000 students nationally who applied for a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a program established in 1999 that provides financial assistance to outstanding minority students. He was one of only 1,000 from the class of 2015 to earn the scholarship, which gave him the opportunity to attend Clemson.

“I didn’t think that was real,” he admitted. “I went to Tillman Hall and listened to him speak and got to meet him and talk for about 30 minutes. How many college campuses can say that? It was mind-boggling. As fate would have it, Bill Gates — the namesake of the scholarship program — came to Clemson on Nov. 2, 2015 to deliver a presentation on “The Future Generation’s Role in Addressing the World’s Greatest Challenges.” Boykin thought it was a cruel joke when a staffer sent him an email telling him the founder of Microsoft desired to meet with Clemson’s scholarship recipients.

“That was probably my favorite Clemson moment.” 

Boykin’s collegiate experience has been filled with memorable moments. He cites PEER & WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) as one of the biggest influences on his time at Clemson.

Founded in 1987 by Sue Lasser, the program’s purpose is to educate, recruit and retain underrepresented populations in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields through mentoring, academic coaching, counseling and enrichment.

He began the program as a mentee under VeeAnder Mealing, now a Ph.D. student and researcher in civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. She graduated from Clemson with multiple biosystems engineering degrees.

Boykin formed a close relationship with Freddy Paige, a civil engineering graduate who now works as an assistant professor in the same field at Virginia Tech.

Paige saw something in Boykin almost immediately.

“Zach always stayed around and asked the right questions,” he said. “He ended up being a mentor and a tutor. Having informal opportunities to hang out were great. Zach was very interactive whenever we had card nights, ice cream socials and things like that.”

Mentoring and Leadership

Following his freshman year, Boykin expressed interest in becoming a mentor. He was able to land a group of mentees who were transfer students starting the spring semester of his sophomore year. He took the students under his wing that fall and built a foundation. He stuck with it and has seen his group grow from freshmen to juniors over the last 2 ½ years.

Boykin’s time at Clemson also corresponded with new leadership within PEER & WISE. Serita Acker, formerly the director of WISE, assumed the controls in August 2015. A couple of years later, in 2017, PEER & WISE was lauded by the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates.

Working out of Freeman Hall, Acker and PEER coordinator Lisa Jackson have been instrumental in enhancing the Clemson experience for students like Boykin.

“Zach is an outstanding young man, academically and socially,” Acker said. “He’s very involved on campus and has a bright future ahead. In my role, I look for our mentors to show students a comfort level on campus. I look for them to engage students within the Clemson family and get them involved in a number of different opportunities, and Zach has done that.”

DeOnte Brown, now interim director of Student Transitions and Family Programs and an advisor for those underrepresented programs, also took notice of Boykin’s standout qualities. Some of those opportunities lied within the Office of Student Transitions and Family Programs. Boykin was a member of the 2015 cohort in CONNECTIONS, which aids first-year students of color along the Clemson journey. He later served as a peer mentor for two years in the program. He was part of the founding board for Brother 2 Brother, an initiative focusing on the success, retention and graduation of black and Hispanic males. Boykin was a member of B2B’s executive board and chaired its academics committee as well.

“Zach was open to a variety of experiences at Clemson,” Brown said. “He was not afraid to create his own path and be a brand ambassador for Clemson.”

Boykin also figured he’d try his hand as an Orientation ambassador. He recalled being part of student council at Camden and ushering a group of students through a mock orientation. He figured Clemson’s would be similar.

“It was like that, but multiplied by about 1,000,” he laughed. “When the summer started we were up at 6 a.m. every morning. We met with different people on campus and had to know everything about the university. It was a great experience and I met a lot of students that way.”

He also met a lot of students after joining a fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, his sophomore year. Hesitant about Greek Life at first, he heeded the advice of several mentors in CONNECTIONS and looked to involvement on that side of campus. He spoke to members about their service and leadership opportunities and decided to join a group of “like-minded individuals.”

Boykin served as Alpha’s president for a calendar year and saw the fraternity chapter — which dates to 1983 at Clemson — double in size during his three years as a member. He led the chapter’s involvement in the local community, from contributing to Alpha’s national philanthropy March of Dimes to investing time with underprivileged students at the nearby Littlejohn Community Center.

The service focus led to him being tapped for not only Blue Key Honor Society but also Order of Omega, which honors the top three percent of all Greek students on campus. He held an executive board position and met even more friends, including Andrew Levitt of Alpha Tau Omega. Levitt and Boykin were both honored recently at the 2019 Fraternity and Sorority Life Awards reception. Levitt was named Interfraternity Council Man of the Year, while Boykin was the recipient of the National Panhellenic Council Man of the Year.

Paige took Boykin’s fraternity involvement a step further. “I was really happy for Zach to receive that award,” Levitt said. “He completely deserves it. We served in leadership roles together in Order of Omega, and he was always a calming presence and voice of reason. He is a great leader by example and I’m very excited to see what his future holds.”

“Zach is a really good example of how Greek Life organizations are built from student leaders,” he said. “The fraternity he’s involved in shifted when he became involved and was a bigger contributor. He wanted to make sure it was the best representation of himself and now he’ll pass the baton and let others know the experience can be what they make of it.”

Graduation and Beyond

Boykin is quite literally on the doorstep of graduation, as he’s set to walk across the stage inside Littlejohn Coliseum tomorrow morning and accept his civil engineering degree from President Jim Clements. While he’s been heavily involved in a number of areas, his No. 1 priority has been academics. He has a focus on structural engineering and later this year will reunite with Paige as he pursues a master’s degree from Virginia Tech.

Last summer, he spent 10 weeks in Blacksburg conducting research alongside one of his mentors. He will serve as Paige’s research assistant and ultimately earn an opportunity to be a teaching assistant and an instructor of record.

His success academically hasn’t surprised Brown — another of his influencers — one bit.

“Zach was one of those students when I met him, I knew would go on to become a distinguished scholar,” said Brown, who himself is pursuing a Ph.D. at Clemson. “He just had that drive and a love for learning. When I saw how engaging he was with students, the bells started ringing for me at that point. He’s had a great impact on students in the STEM fields.”

Boykin hasn’t put a ton of thought toward graduation but acknowledges a lot of emotions will likely come as he sets foot in the arena with his classmates. He’s excited to take the next step as a scholar at Virginia Tech. He could see himself returning to Clemson or Camden one day in a teaching capacity.

But for now, he simply wants to reflect on a four-year journey that has seen him impacted in one way or another at nearly every corner of campus.

“I’m leaving a lot of friends and mentees behind,” he said. “I’ve had staff members and professors who have impacted me. Four years have gone by so fast, but a lot of faces were met and relationships have been made here.”

He’ll look to continue one of those relationships soon enough when he joins Paige in the Commonwealth. And while it’s obvious Zach Boykin is destined for more success at his next stop, it’s impossible to ignore the enormous impact he’s had on the Clemson community.

“Zach came from a rural place and he’s been an upstanding young guy with humble beginnings,” Paige said. “He came through like a hurricane and made some big changes while growing himself as well.”

Originally Published: Clemson Newsstand