Creating opportunity: Clemson University alumna Lee Hilderbrand Blakely

January 14, 2021

According to the U.S. Department of Education, almost a third of undergraduate students in associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs change their major at least once. That was the case for Clemson University alumna Lee Hilderbrand Blakely (2008), who shifted her undergraduate degree focus from chemistry to communication, before a travel and tourism minor helped her discover a passion for event planning.

Clemson University alumna Lee Hilderbrand Blakely (2008).

Clemson University alumna Lee Hilderbrand Blakely (2008) turned her travel and tourism minor into a successful career.

Blakely has since applied the same philosophy to her career, using experiences in different jobs to find the perfect fit. Blakely organized events for the Chick-fil-A Bowl Game in Atlanta, sold linens to event planners throughout Charleston, and worked as both a wedding planner and in destination management before launching her own business last fall. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned along the way with students in the Clemson University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management (PRTM).

Students in the department’s program and events planning class learn about planning, implementing and evaluating leisure and recreation programs and events. Blakely will lead a group of students through a project that they will carry out in the Charleston community, where they will be required to assess the project’s needs, develop goals and objectives, and build and implement a comprehensive plan. They will then be asked to measure whether they achieved the goals and objectives they set out to accomplish.

Blakely said that applying lessons learned in the classroom to real-world experiences is invaluable, something she discovered during her own time as a PRTM student.

“My favorite class was with a professor who had worked in national parks, and who taught much of the class based off of his first-hand experiences on the job,” Blakely said. “It inspired me to go out and do my own thing and learn by experience. Now I’m excited to pass that on to other PRTM students.”

Blakely with her son and father, Van Hilderbrand (1974).

Blakely with her son and father, Van Hilderbrand (1974) – who retired from a 38 year career with the Clemson Athletics department in 2015.

Sheila Backman, Ph.D., one of Blakely’s former professors, said that Blakely was a great student who has a lot of on-the-ground knowledge to share with those currently completing their degrees, so she can help students understand what skills they need to succeed in the field.

“She exhibited positive behavior as a student, came to class on time, and was prepared and engaged – all skills that can be taken for granted, but have served her well in her past employment,” Backman said. “I expect her business to be successful, and for our students to benefit greatly from her knowledge.”

Blakely said that she’s happy to give back to her alma mater.

“I have a very deep connection with Clemson, the college and with the major as well, in many different ways,” said Blakely, whose father (Van Hilderbrand, 1974), brother (Van Hilderbrand Jr., 2002) and husband (David Blakely, 2008) are also graduates. “It’s good to keep those connections going.”


The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.

Experience Holy City in Charleston specializes in event planning, destination management, day-of-wedding coordination and transportation for groups visiting Charleston or other parts of South Carolina. The business was founded by Lee Blakely in October 2020.