Four years ago, Jessica Tolbert would have been hard pressed to predict the accomplishments and experiences that awaited her when she enrolled at Claflin University.
Tolbert, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., heard about Claflin after meeting Mike Zeigler, the university’s director of admissions, at a college fair.
She was so impressed with his presentation that, after conducting her own research, Tolbert made the decision to enroll at Claflin without a visit to Orangeburg.
“I just knew Claflin was the right place for me,” Tolbert said.
Now she will be among the candidates for graduation at Claflin’s sesquicentennial commencement at 11 a.m. Saturday in the South Atlantic Conference Seventh-day Adventist Convention Center, 514 Neeses Highway.
Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, the university’s eighth president, will deliver the keynote address.
Tolbert is earning a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.
She initially distinguished herself through her academic performance as a student in the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College. She later displayed her leadership capabilities when she was elected president of the Claflin University Student Government Association during the 2017-18 academic year.
Serving as SGA president provided Tolbert insight for how to become an effective leader and the different perceptions of male versus female leaders.
“I learned that there is always room to grow when you hold a leadership position,” Tolbert said. “You have to evolve because issues and priorities can change. I also discovered that there is a double standard for women in leadership positions. We have to look the part at all times – from the way we dress to how we interact with others.
“Our society still has a long way to go in accepting and respecting women who are in leadership roles.”
Although Tolbert was deeply immersed in student politics and other campus activities, she set her sights on study abroad opportunities.
Tolbert received her first study abroad opportunity in June 2018 as a research assistant in the International Research Experience for Undergraduates coordinated by Syracuse University. The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, assigned Tolbert to research projects for the summer in Austria at Graz University. Tolbert joined investigators studying organic synthesis.
When the program ended in August, Tolbert continued her study abroad odyssey by travelling to Kenya to participate in a student exchange initiative.
“Jessica and two other Claflin students spent the entire semester in Kenya,” said Dr. Angela Peters, vice provost for academic programs at Claflin. “The students were enrolled in mini-courses at Kenya International University-Africa that kept them on schedule to graduate in May. The exchange program was very successful and our students had a great experience. The officials at Kenya were so impressed that three students from Kenya are coming to Claflin for the 2019 fall semester.”
Tolbert said that travelling to two continents in the same year was so much more than what she expected.
“While in Europe I visited the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary and United Kingdom. Then, going to Kenya after that was beyond anything I imagined would happen at Claflin,” she said.
Tolbert said that in addition to enhancing her knowledge as a researcher and navigating through the language and cultural diversity of two distinctly different continents, she discovered a lot about herself.
"I found out what I can or what I am willing to handle," she said. "I gained a lot of confidence in myself. There really is the ‘Claflin Confidence.’ There were many times when I was the only black person in an airport or restaurant. It made me realize how much we -- as blacks -- have to do in the world to truly become global citizens."
Tolbert will attend Dartmouth College, where she will pursue a doctorate in chemistry. Eventually, she plans to launch a career in higher education as an administrator or faculty member.
It is no coincidence that in choosing the Hanover, New Hampshire-based Ivy League institution, she is following the path of Tisdale, a Claflin graduate who earned a Ph.D. and master's degree in mathematics at Dartmouth.
"Dr. Tisdale inspired me to think about Dartmouth," she said. "He was a math major and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduate who became a university president. If Dartmouth can produce someone like Dr. Tisdale, it was a place I had to consider.”
Tolbert represents the last graduating class during Tisdale’s 25-year tenure as president. Tisdale will retire on June 30.
Tolbert also is a member of First Lady Alice Carson Tisdale’s final group of Honors College graduates from the program which bears her name. Mrs. Tisdale was appointed director of the Honors College in 1994.
“Honors College students will always have a very special relationship with Mrs. Tisdale,” Tolbert said. “She was very nurturing, but she gave us tough love when we needed it.
“She held us to very high standards and always encouraged us to strive for excellence – in academics and as visionary leaders. We saw Mrs. Tisdale on a consistent basis and it was more like a family dynamic. It was awesome seeing the diversity of students doing all types of things – international students from Nepal, Jamaica, Africa and from all over the U.S. We had to rely on each other to complete projects so we became very close.”