ANDERSON --- Wallace Cobbs was wowed by the Clemson University campus when he took a college tour during his junior year at Mauldin High School. It was 2004 - just a few years after Time Magazine named Clemson Public College of the Year, and it was on the fast track to being ranked a Top 20 national public university.
"This was what my dream school looked like, but I quickly realized I wasn't going to be accepted because I hadn't taken school seriously," said Cobbs, who went back home and buckled down for the next two years and began to study, pulling his GPA above a 3.3 by his senior year.
He still applied to his first choice, Clemson, but was among the 900-plus recent high school students who narrowly missed admission. They were being offered another chance through the newly-established Bridge to Clemson program, a first of its kind in South Carolina. Bridge to Clemson is an invitation-only program that blends the traditional academic experience at Tri-County with the social and cultural experiences of being a Clemson University student. The program, which began in 2006, offers students a university experience and seamless transition to Clemson for their sophomore year. Bridge students must earn 30 transfer credits at Tri-County during their two semesters and transfer to Clemson with a minimum 2.5 GPA.
"When I received my letter, I took it as a chance to prove myself. I was grateful for the opportunity," said Cobbs, who was a member of the first Bridge to Clemson class in 2006. After three years as a reading/social studies teacher at Pendleton Elementary School, this summer he was promoted to assistant principal of New Prospect Elementary School in Anderson.
He admits that he thought Tri-County would be less rigorous than a four-year university but says, "I quickly realized they named it Harvard on the hill for a reason! Classes were difficult with lots of rigorous assignments that prepared me for Clemson," he said.
He learned from friends at Tri-County about the Call Me MISTER program, a nationally-known scholarship teaching program developed by Clemson University to meet the shortage of African American male teachers in South Carolina's elementary schools. In its 15th year, Call Me MISTER is dedicated to changing the face of education in America by putting more African American males in the classroom as teachers and role models.
Through the program, black males are recruited, trained and certified to become elementary teachers in S.C.'s public schools. The program is a collaborative effort between Clemson and Benedict College, Claflin University, South Carolina State University, Morris College, and others.
Cobbs said African American male teachers were nearly non-existent when he was in elementary and middle school - if you exclude coaches and gym teachers.
"When I did see them, they stood out and I remembered them," he said. Cobbs himself was raised in a single-parent home until his mother remarried after he graduated from high school. "She gave all that she could, but there are only so many hours in a day," he said of his mother, who worked a full-time job as an engineer while he was growing up. "Not all kids have a male role model in their lives. As a teacher, it is my job to act as their role model. I want to help other kids, like me, who have no male guidance but who have potential. I got to know my kids by attending their sporting events and getting involved with their clubs and organizations at school," he added.
At Pendleton Elementary, he organized a group called Man Up, designed to show and teach male students the behaviors of a role model. They cover such topics as learning to tie a tie, dinner etiquette, car maintenance, confidence, and goal setting.
He says the guidance he received through his Call Me MISTER mentors prepared him to do what he is doing today. Through MISTER role models, like Field Coordinator Winston Holton, he began to understand the effect he could have on students.
An example that stands out in Cobbs' mind is when he was a student teacher, a student told him he couldn't do his assignment because he didn't have a dictionary. "When I told Winston the story, he asked me 'why didn't you buy him a dictionary?' Talking with Winston reminded me that you have to look at the little things and be cognizant of students' environments. You have to take it to the next step and go beyond the call of duty. That what the Call Me MISTER program teaches -- there are male teachers and there are great male teachers. It's not about showing up when the bell rings at 8 and leaving at 3," he said.
Cobbs says Holton serves as a father figure to him and continues to be a confidante. "He listened to me and had great advice. He was firm and never let me coast. The MISTER program was a life changer. It gave me a chance. My best friends are from the program. I'll stay involved forever and continue to recruit and spread the word," he said.
"I am living the dream. I am making changes in kids' lives. And I see the evidence every day when test scores rise and they get excited about education and their opportunities. You can open their eyes to so many things," he said.
"I always wanted to be where I am now. It's one thing to say you want something and another to be there. I never thought I would be teaching and have my master's and be a doctoral student by age 27," said Cobbs.
He graduated from Clemson in 2011 with an elementary education degree, and from 2011 - 12, he taught at Cherrydale Elementary in Greenville. He earned an educational administration and supervision degree from Southern Wesleyan University and now is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership at Clemson.
He expects to shock more than a few former Mauldin High classmates when he attends his 10-year high school reunion this fall. He says they will see an entirely different person, thanks to Tri-County, Bridge to Clemson, Call Me MISTER, Clemson and SWU. "Look how far I've come. Education is the key that unlocks the door. When I talk to kids ages 11 - 12, it's hard for them to understand how important it is. I explain it by telling them my story about what education can do. Education results in wins, not losses, and getting a job that you love."