Claflin News

Emmanuel Pressley Named Claflin University’s First Truman Scholar

Hemingway Native is the Only 2014 Truman Scholar from S.C.

Claflin University junior politics and justice studies major Emmanuel Pressley has been on a journey since before he even matriculated to Claflin. He just didn’t know quite where it was leading him.

Pressley became Claflin’s first-ever Harry S. Truman Scholar on Wednesday – and the only one from South Carolina this year. The Truman is a highly competitive, merit-based award offered to U.S. college students who want to go to graduate school in preparation for a career in public service.

A celebrated prize in its own right, the Truman Scholarship (known also as a “Baby Rhodes”) is also considered a steppingstone to other prestigious awards, such as the Rhodes Scholarship and the Marshall Scholarship. Winners of Truman Scholarships in their junior year very often return in their senior year of college to compete for the Rhodes and/or Marshall Scholarships. Many win.

“The University congratulates Emmanuel on this high achievement,” Claflin President Dr. Henry N. Tisdale said. “His selection as a Truman Scholar is no small feat, and it also represents the caliber of students Claflin University is committed to recruit and retain. We are confident Emmanuel will live up to the expectations of a recipient of the Truman award.”

Pressley, who graduated as valedictorian of Hemmingway High School in 2011, is one of 59 new Truman Scholars – mostly college juniors – who were selected from among 655 candidates nominated by 293 colleges and universities. He joins the ranks of many U.S. leaders already established in the field of public service, individuals such as Dr. Susan E. Rice, U.S. national security adviser and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton adviser and current ABC journalist; and Janet Napolitano, former U.S. head of national security and former governor of Arizona, among many others. 

“I’ve always been involved in the community,” the Hemingway, S.C., native said, adding that his love of helping others stems from watching his mother, Jennifer Pressley, do the same.

“She’s a nurse, and she’s always been really involved in our community, whether it’s helping people out at our church or volunteering with the fire department,” Pressley continued. “She’s always been involved, and I’ve had many years, while growing up, to look at that work ethic and look at how she was involved, and to just emulate that in my life.”

In addition to joining a network of like-minded public servants, Truman Scholars receive up to $30,000 for their graduate studies. Pressley’s goal is to obtain a master’s degree in public policy and then attend law school, with the hopes of one day becoming a civil rights attorney and opening a nonprofit organization, which he has named “Second Bridges,” that advocates for and assists nonviolent felons in rehabilitating and transitioning smoothly back into society.

“It feels absolutely amazing to be named a Truman Scholar,” Pressley said. “When I first matriculated to Claflin and Mrs. (Alice Carson) Tisdale told me about the National Merit Scholarships, with the Truman being one of the most prestigious, I immediately wanted to apply for it.

“For me, the Truman truly embodies what it means to leave Claflin better than I found it, and just blossoming into that visionary leader that Dr. Tisdale always talks about. It’s truly a blessing.”

Pressley, a member of the Alice Carson Tisdale Honors College, has been actively involved at Claflin since arriving on campus in fall 2011. He has served as a class senator since his freshman year, and has been appointed to the Honors Council all three years at Claflin. He has volunteered with the local Boys and Girls Club, Longwood Plantation Assisted Living Community and as a tutor on campus.

The summer after his freshman year, Pressley interned for the Family Court Division of the 16th Circuit Court in Jackson County, Mo., as part of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars Program.

The next summer, he took part in the Ronald H. Brown Prep Program for College Students and interned at the Queens County Supreme Court in Queens, N.Y. While in New York, he also interned with Common Cause New York, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with the citizens of New York in holding their elected officials accountable for their actions.

Last fall, Pressley studied abroad in Florianopolis, Brazil, where he took part in the Culture, Portuguese Language, Business and Courses with Locals program at the Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina.

“Study abroad really shaped my perspective, when it comes to diversity and the importance of diversity in our workforce, in our schools,” he said.

Pressley said such experiences have been enriching and rewarding – and each has pushed him even closer to his goal of becoming a Truman Scholar, and, ultimately, his life goals.

“When I was in high school, my older brother got into trouble with the law, and just before I started college, he was getting released. It was very hard for him to rehabilitate or at least transition smoothly back into society,” he said. “That’s basically what my nonprofit is going to be about. I want it to combat felony disenfranchisement laws, but also advocate for community outreach in order to connect incarcerated individuals who are trying to rehabilitate back into society with employers, housing opportunities and governmental assistance so that they can become productive and contributing citizens.

“I have found that many of the rights that were fought for during the civil rights movement … are stripped when you become a felon because of the labeling and the stigma that comes with being a felon.”

This summer, Pressley will take part in the 2014 Truman Scholars Leadership Week at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., where this year’s scholars will receive their awards in a special ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., on May 25. He will also take part in an intense 10-week LSAT preparation program at the St. John's University School of Law in Queens, N.Y.

“I have an internship waiting for me after my senior year at the Washington Summer Institute, which is a branch of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation,” Pressley said.

Becoming Claflin’s first Truman Scholar is almost an opportunity that Pressley let pass him by.

He was well on his way to having his application completed when his laptop literally crashed – on the floor of his host family’s home in Brazil.

“I lost everything, and I was almost finished with the process of applying for the Truman Scholarship,” Pressley said. “So from October until I returned to Claflin in early January, I stopped everything … I stopped doing work towards it. I had lost all of my research, I had lost all of my essays – and we’re talking about months of revising, emailing back and forth … it’s not something that you can just do overnight.

“But when I got here, I kicked into gear. That’s when I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this.’ I started it, and I don’t like starting something and not finishing it. It’s not a very good trait.”

And the long process of working and writing and researching and waiting and preparing for the interview – it all paid off for Pressley.

“There were many nights when I wanted to give up,” he said. “But I’m glad I did it.

“I told Dr. Tisdale that the award – and don’t get me wrong, the $30,000 is great – but the reward, for me, was the experience, because in the process, they ask you questions that you don’t often times ask yourself. It’s truly the process of applying and interviewing for the Truman Scholarship that was so rewarding.”

Many people helped him along the way, Pressley said, adding that he would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge their guidance and assistance in helping him on the road to becoming a Truman Scholar: President Tisdale, Mrs. Tisdale, Dr. Roosevelt Ratliff, Dr. Deborah L. Laufersweiler-Dwyer, Ms. Susan Lerner, Dr. Carlton Long, Dr. Millicent Brown, Dr. Caroletta Shuler Ivey, Dr. Leonard Pressley, Ms. Pricilla Anderson, Mr. Devin Randolph and Mr. Drexel Ball. Whether it was writing a recommendation letter or helping him prepare for his interview on April 2 at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., each of them were a godsend in the process, he said.

“And I just wanted to say that my success is not about me,” Pressley continued. “I try to remind myself that my success is not about me. Essentially, it’s God acting within me to make me a vessel to help others. I’m thankful and highly appreciative for the people who have helped me throughout this process, but I give all glory and honor to God. My success is not because of my own ability – it’s because of God.”

To those coming behind him who also have aspirations to aim high and reach for what may seem impossible, Pressley has this advice.

“This is one of Dr. Tisdale’s five key points that I keep in mind all the time – you have to raise your self-expectancy, because the world is a big world, and you can do some amazing things,” he said. “So I would challenge all students – my peers, everyone and anyone who desires to attend Claflin or pursue their dreams or simply make a difference in their world … we all need to raise our self-expectancy and put forth the effort to maximize our potential.”

And be passionate about your goals, he added.

“You, me, anyone must be passionate, must know why they want to do it, and it must show,” he said. “You must have your passion, and know where it’s stemming from.

“I’m extremely excited about what the future holds.”

The Truman Scholarship Foundation was established by Congress in 1975 as the federal memorial to the nation’s 33rd president. There have been 2,965 Truman Scholars since the first awards were made in 1977.



What is the Truman Scholarship?

The Truman is a highly competitive, merit-based award offered to U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals from Pacific Islands who want to go to graduate school in preparation for a career in public service. The scholarship offers:

  • Recognition of outstanding potential as a leader in public service;
  • Affirmation of values and ideals;
  • Enhanced access to highly competitive graduate institutions; 
  • Access to Scholar programs such as Truman Scholars Leadership Week, the Summer Institute and various Truman Fellows Programs;
  • Membership in a community of persons devoted to helping others and to improving the world; and,
  • Up to $30,000 to apply toward graduate study in the U.S. or abroad in a wide variety of fields.

Who are the Truman Scholars?

They are persons who have been recognized by the Truman Scholarship Foundation as future “change agents.” They have the passion, intellect, and leadership potential that in time should enable them to improve the ways that public entities – be they government agencies, nonprofit organizations, public and private educational institutions, or advocacy organizations – serve the public good.

Who is eligible to receive a Truman Scholarship?

U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals who are college or university students with junior-level academic standing and who wish to attend professional or graduate school to prepare for careers in government or the nonprofit and advocacy sectors where they will improve the ways these institutions work. Residents of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana must have senior-level standing.

Information from


Opera Training Ground : Claflin students among the best in the state, region

Jun 03, 2013
Dr. Lori Hicks sees herself in the budding musicians she teaches at Claflin University. Just a few moments in a vocal lesson class and you can feel the connection. Her drive is their drive. Her expertise is influencing the way they learn to become singers. Her experience as a professional opera singer is providing them with proof that success in the field is possible.
When she came to Claflin, Hicks brought with her a passion for teaching and exposing music students to opera and students have responded with great enthusiasm by participating in productions on campus and by introducing the community to the genre as well. A member of the National Association of Teachers of Singers (NATS), Hicks has taken students to compete in a competition sponsored by the organization for the past four years. Students compete against the top vocal programs in the state and region. Each year Claflin, the only HBCU (Historically Black College and Universities) competing at the event, has been among the best. This year, eight students placed at the state level and advanced to the regional competition and three students placed in the top three in their categories.
“This competition prepares them for future auditions, graduate school auditions, vocal school auditions, job auditions,” Hicks said. “It is also great for recruiting for our music program. Our students get the opportunity to meet other singers and build a presence in the singing community. They get to hear recitals, new music and are exposed to a different repertoire.”
With scores of 25 or better out of 30 points, Pamela Nions, Rod Hines, Corinthia Sims, Dorian Dillard, LaQuentin Jenkins, Lia Holman, Desmond Williams and Antonio Riley advanced to the regional competition. Claflin sophomores Nions and Sims went on to place first and third in the sophomore women’s group, respectively, and Hines placed second among junior men out of more than 300 competitors.
“I believe it is an important part of a music student’s education to experience friendly competition among fellow students from other institutions,” said Department of Music Chair Dr. Isaiah McGee. “It is not about winning or losing, but a way for students to assess where they are in their development based on the expertise of those who are in the profession.”
The success Claflin students have made is confirmation that legitimate opera singers are being trained here to successfully compete with the best in the field. Opera has taken root at Claflin, led by students who have found an indelible passion for it.
The Dreamer
Nions’ face literally lights up when she talks about singing. It’s a path she secretly longed for, but never truly envisioned for herself. “I was a kitchen singer,” she quipped, explaining that she was an instrumentalist and didn’t really start singing until she came to Claflin.
“I never performed in public,” she said. “I was Aunt Em in The Wiz in high school. I play clarinet, saxophone, French horn and trumpet…I loved band. It taught me discipline and how to learn music, but I wasn’t happy. I wanted to sing”
Nions had full scholarships to several universities as an instrumentalist. She only came to Claflin to support a friend at her audition. On the spot, Claflin offered her the opportunity to do the one thing she really wanted to do – sing.
“I came to South Carolina to go to Benedict,” the Inkster, Mich. native said. “I was just at Claflin to support a friend. I was sitting outside and decided to come in. They asked me if I sing and offered me a scholarship.”
NATS has a chapter in every state and each year voice teachers come together to have competitions for students. Each teacher is allowed to bring 10 students. Claflin entered 18 students under Hicks and Dr. Taylor Johnson. Schools competing on the state level included the University of South Carolina, Converse College, Bob Jones University and Charleston Southern University. Regional competitors included schools from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. Students were required to sing both arias and art songs in at least two languages other than English.
Nions competed in the NATS competition last year and her scores were one point shy of qualifying. This year, she said the experience of winning was validating for her and confirmed that she is on the right path.
“I went freshman year and didn’t place; this year winning is a good feeling,” she said. “It’s unexpected. I’m very surprised. After singing two judges approached me. One of them said I’m a very charming person and I have the look to be a performer. She said my future is very bright. The other said there were good singers competing and I should celebrate. He said ‘start preparing for the Met (Metropolitan Opera House.)’”
Nions’ exposure to competitions like NATS and operatic performers has motivated her to be serious in her pursuit of a career as an opera singer. The one-time instrumentalist who quietly aspired to be a neo soul artist is now completely immersed in opera and at home on stage.
“Since coming to Claflin I saw Denise Graves in concert and I saw myself doing that. Now I want to be a classical performer. I want to go to the Met,” she said. “I wasn’t going to come here…It has to be a calling. I love being on stage. I had stage fright. Now I’ve become the person I want to be off stage. I hold my head up, will look you in your eyes and tell you what I’m feeling. I practice all the time. I am serious about this. If it’s in God’s will for me to do it, I am going to do it.”
The Perfectionist
There is a seriousness about Rod Hines that is well beyond his years. A conscientious person, Hines not only works tirelessly to perfect his craft, but also understands the challenging road he will travel. An aspiring journalist in high school, Hines joined the choir in the tenth grade. It was then that he came across some opera recordings and was hooked. The opportunity to attend Claflin came out of nowhere, he said, and at the last minute.
“The concert choir came to perform at my school,” the Detroit, Mich. native said. “I met Dr. Hicks who was an alumna of my high school and felt like it was the right thing to do. I am happy I made that decision.”
This was Hines’ third year competing in the NATS competition. This year was different, he said, and he had to work hard to stand out even more.
“We were the only black school there so I felt I had to represent super hard for my university,” he said. “At regionals it was interesting to see how people viewed us. Then to have three of us place was a surprise -- not a surprise to me but to the other competitors. It made me feel proud to compete with the majority and come out on top. I deserved to be there.”
Hines said he has a strong drive to strive for perfection to realize his dream of becoming an opera singer. That means average is not an option, he said. He has to be better than the best and able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the top performers in the industry.
“At regionals, to be able to sing among students my age I knew I was going to be competitive,” he said. “I am happy to know I’m at a high level. Being a minority gives me a strong drive to work harder and to dig deeper. When I came to Claflin, I knew Dr. Hicks would whip me into shape. I knew she would be extremely helpful in my growth and foster my full potential. It’s tough to be black and young in this business, but you have to go beyond and raise your own bars. You have to do what is asked of you and more.”
Hines is also a peer tutor and a student conductor for the Claflin University Concert Choir. Singing gives him joy, he said, and he plans to make it more than a career.
“I’m at home on stage and I love to sing and share my world,” he said. “I love concert performing and singing opera. It gives you that connection and the joy, which is what it’s all about for me.”
The Diva
“I have been singing since I was two years old,” Corinthia Sims said matter-of-factly. “My mom, dad and siblings are all singers. By the time I was in the 11th grade, I was singing arias I shouldn’t have been able to sing.”
Sims has long been competing against top performers at the national level and she has come away with first place wins on many occasions. She won the George Shirley Aria and Black Art Song Competition for high school students and the NAACP’s Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition. However, for Sims, competing at NATS and finishing third was a different kind of learning experience.
“I learned that everybody is not going to love your voice,” she said. “You never know what they are looking for. My voice is a very big instrument for someone my age and classification. It is intimidating.”
Another Michigan student, Sims was lured to Claflin by Dr. Hicks who saw her at the George Shirley competition. Her singing roots are in gospel and she, too, played instruments and thought that would be her path. She joined her high school concert choir and became interested in classical music. Sims wants to be an opera singer on the level of her role model Leontyne Price, she said. However, she didn’t realize how hard the academic training would be.
“I didn’t know I had this in me,” she said. “I think I could inspire someone else to love what I do. It’s a beautiful thing, a unique talent. And it’s hard work. I never knew I had to take all of these classes. I know if I want to pursue this dream, I have to do this. I have been told I am going to be a renowned opera singer. I push myself because this is what I really love.”
Even with her enormous talent, experience with winning and being among the best, Sims understands that there is still much to learn. While she embraces her confidence, she humbly describes her talent as a gift from God and knows it will lead her to the fulfillment of her dream.
“I hope to be an opera singer,” she said. “I don’t know what God is going to do in my life. I transferred from gospel to classical, am learning new techniques – it’s all so exciting. It will be a challenge but I thank God. I believe this is going to be me.”

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