When Marissa Hickman arrived at the University of South Carolina in 2011, she wasn’t sure exactly what to study. She spent her first couple of years exploring different majors, hoping to make the right choice. Four years later, she left the university as one of the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning’s earliest participants in the Graduation with Leadership Distinction program, equipped with the reflective capacity to embark on an exciting career in higher education and study abroad.
This year, the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning is celebrating the leadership program’s 10th anniversary. One of the center’s signature initiatives, Graduation with Leadership Distinction provides students with five different pathways to official recognition of significant leadership and service during their time at South Carolina.
Students participate a variety of beyond-the-classroom experiences and articulate their learning through a culminating e-portfolio and presentation, and in exchange, their diplomas honor their accomplishments and provide a convenient opportunity to share these achievements with future employers and graduate school recruiters. Here are just a few of some of the earliest graduates with leadership distinction.
Research Pathway, 2014 biomedical engineering
Current role: Assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Oklahoma
When John Clegg came to the University of South Carolina in 2010 as a biomedical engineering major and student in the South Carolina Honors College, he was eager to immerse himself in activities — intramural football and dodgeball, a professional engineering fraternity and part-time work in research laboratories.
It was in Melissa Moss’ lab that Clegg first began applying what he was learning within his major. Interested in Moss’ work with pharmaceutical development and Alzheimer’s disease, Clegg dove headfirst into the research, identifying small molecule inhibitors of amyloid beta aggregation. Amyloid beta is one of the proteins that accumulates in the brain in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and small aggregates of the protein are neurotoxic.
He pursued Graduation with Leadership Distinction to formalize the research he had been doing. “Undergraduate research can often be viewed as an extracurricular involvement,” Clegg explains. “But GLD helped me draw attention and emphasis to research, something I was doing well and wanted to pursue further.”
And Clegg has indeed pursued research further. After graduating from USC, he earned his master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas, then he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University studying immunotherapy.
Since May of 2021, Clegg has operated his own lab at the University of Oklahoma as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. He mentors a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers, helping them gain valuable research opportunities much like his own. His work has brought him right back to his Carolina roots: studying drug delivery for the treatment of central nervous diseases and brain injuries.
“I’m very appreciative to USC and the GLD program,” says Clegg. “I really credit the early opportunities I was provided by GLD, the Honors College and the biomedical engineering program for starting my career in research.”
Professional and Civic Engagement Pathway, 2014 anthropology with a minor in biology
Current role: Healthy Communities coordinator at The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program
Salem Carriker has a passion for healthy living. As an undergraduate student in the Honors College, Carriker founded a student health organization, Project Vida, that’s still serving Columbia by sending volunteers into the community to share a healthy living curriculum and programs with underserved youth.
As an anthropology major and biology minor, Carriker was invested in public health, conducting undergraduate research on maternal health and studying child and maternal health care as a policy intern with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She also helped recruit volunteers for Columbia's Spanish-language free health clinic The Good Samaritan Clinic, where she managed electronic health records and organized fundraisers.
For Carriker, science is a means of service. After graduating, Carriker took an AmeriCorps position in Vermont, launching a program to bring farm-to-hospital food boxes and healthy cooking demos to cardiac rehab patients.
She moved from food boxes for hospital patients to garden boxes for low-income families, helping establish a sustainable way for communities to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Carriker has continued her career in community health, transitioning into her current position with Resourceful Communities, a program of The Conservation Fund. Resourceful Communities supports rural, grassroots organizations across North Carolina, enabling small groups to build capacity through free trainings, workshops, technical assistance, and grant funding.
Carriker largely credits the Honors College with providing the support she needed to kickstart her career, but she acknowledges the GLD as part of the process of applying for jobs and receiving offers. “I really enjoyed the e-portfolio,” she says. “It was a really helpful reflection and helped me think through what I had done, how to connect those pieces, and how to present that to future employers.”
Research Pathway, 2014 marine science with a minor in Chinese studies
Current role: Outreach coordinator for Monitor and Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuaries, Newport News, Virginia
For Mark Losavio, working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association was a dream job. Passionate about marine science, he dove headfirst into Students Engaged in Aquatic Science, where he was president, and started the SCUBA club. He was also around for the early days of the geology club and wildlife association at USC.
What really ignited Losavio’s excitement for learning was his work in labs: with Virginia Shervette, he studied filefish and triggerfish, and in Carol Boggs’ lab, he spent a semester exploring butterfly larva. When Losavio realized that his club leadership positions and research experiences qualified him to graduate with leadership distinction, he was eager to sign up.
The experiences and connections paid off. A peer in the leadership program forwarded Losavio the information about an aquarium management internship that he took in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and from there, he launched his career in marine science. Losavio returned to USC, where he worked the Estuary and Wetland Health and Ecology Lab run by Tom Chandler, who is now dean of the Arnold School of Public Health. He then moved onto an AmeriCorps role in New England and a master’s program at Northeastern University.
Losavio is now living the dream with NOAA, where he is an outreach coordinator for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and publicizes stories about the major happenings within national marine sanctuaries. He’s quick to thank Graduation with Leadership Distinction program for its contributions to his success.
“So many of the accolades you can graduate with depend on scholarships, grades or being an Honors student. I didn’t have the best grades, but I never shied away from hard work, joining all these clubs, getting leadership positions,” says Losavio. “I think I was elevated for those because of the GLD. It was a way to highlight my accomplishments that didn’t depend entirely on grades.”
Global Learning Pathway, 2015 Spanish with a business administration minor
Current role: Boren Awards program manager for the Institute of International Education
As a first-generation college student, Marissa Hickman wanted to take full advantage of opportunities available to her at USC. Hickman was a Capstone scholar, sorority member, and University 101 peer leader, but the experience that truly changed her life was her semester abroad.
As a Spanish major, Seville, Spain, was a natural destination, but Hickman was a bit intimidated at the prospect of her first flight being international. Her nerves were quickly replaced by excitement as she began classes at the Universidad de Sevilla and started teaching English to Spanish primary school students in her spare time.
After returning to USC, Hickman connected with Buddies Beyond Borders to remain engaged with international students. When she learned about Graduation with Leadership Distinction’s global learning pathway, she was eager for the opportunity to reflect on her experiences and better contextualize the lessons she’d taken from her time in Spain.
The GLD reflection prompts helped Hickman recognize the resilience and perspective she’d developed, and she graduated with a clear career path: help other students access experiences like hers. This goal brought her back to USC for her master’s degree in higher education student affairs, and the rest is history.
From London to George Washington University in D.C., Hickman has run the gamut of professional study-abroad roles: international residential coordinator, study abroad advisor and now, program manager with the Institute of International Education. She helps students secure funding to study languages overseas in world regions critical to U.S. interests and national security through the Boren Awards, an initiative of the Department of Defense.
“GLD took my semester abroad from this abstract best semester ever to helping me frame everything, make it more digestible, and shape who I am. I’m super grateful,” says Hickman. “My whole trajectory would have been different if I hadn’t done any of this.”