My College Story: From Small Town to Big Campus

Todd Holley talks about going to a big college.

Todd Holley

Todd Holley grew up in a small town called Ninety Six, SC, so small that at the time of the 2010 census, there were fewer than 2,000 residents. A first-generation college student, Todd always knew that he wanted to go to college, but it was a new experience for his family. He ended up deciding to go to Clemson University, a school with a student body eight times as large as the population of his hometown! While at Clemson, which is also in South Carolina, he majored in business management and human resources.

Q. Where did you grow up?

[I grew up in] a small, rural, close-knit town [called Ninety Six]. My family only moved once while I was growing up, and it was only a few miles away. I played Little League, went to Cub Scouts, and knew all of the other students in my classes from when I was in kindergarten through high school. My high school graduating class was exactly 100 students.

Q. Did you always know you were going to go to college?

Yes, I always knew I wanted to go to college. I did well in school, so I knew that I probably could [get into college] if I tried. But, neither of my parents attended college, and my older sister dropped out after a year in community college, so this was a new experience for my family.

Q. How did it feel to be a first-generation college student?

I feel proud of having accomplished going to college. I never felt pressured by my parents to go to college; I actually felt more pressure from all of my friends going. My parents would have been supportive of whatever path I chose to take, whether it was college or the military (which I also considered).

Q. How did you choose your college?

I went to a lot of football games at Clemson when I was growing up, and I always liked the campus and the small-town surroundings. Plus it was close to my hometown, so I could stay close to my family. But I liked that it was far enough away that my family could not show up unannounced.

I applied to a few other schools in the Southeast, but I always knew that Clemson was my first choice. The guidance counselor at my high school helped me fill out applications. Because my parents didn’t have experience with the application process, they really weren’t able to help me. Other than having been to Clemson’s campus for sporting events, and seeing Georgia Tech’s campus while there to see a football game, I didn’t visit any campuses.

Q. Did you receive any scholarships?

I received a LIFE scholarship, which is available to high school seniors who are residents of South Carolina and meet certain requirements. I was fortunate enough that the rest of my tuition was covered by my parents.

Q. What was the adjustment from a small town to a big campus like?

Even though it is a relatively large state school (about 15,000 undergraduate students when I attended), it is located in a small town that is built primarily around the university. So the similarities between that town (called Clemson, SC) and my hometown of Ninety Six made me feel comfortable. There was a slight difference in that I didn’t know all of the other students like I did in high school, which is what caused some of my social anxiety early on. But I adjusted, and by my sophomore year I felt more comfortable.

Q. What was your favorite experience in college?

I loved Saturday football games! Clemson was a great place for watching sports, and it was one day that I knew all of my friends would get together. Usually, my family would come up on those days as well.

Q. What is something you struggled with in college?

Studying and meeting new people. Being from a small town, I never had to get outside of my comfort zone or really meet new people. I stayed with a smaller group of friends and was pretty self-conscious. Around my sophomore year [in college], I started to get more comfortable talking to new people. I think that things like group work, campus social events, and adjusting to being in a new place helped.

Q. Did you change majors?

Yes, I did change my major. I started as an engineering major, but during my junior year the workload became too much and I decided I’d be happier studying business. Part of the reason I decided to change majors was that I had an internship with the company I now work for during the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I really enjoyed the work, so I decided to change my career plans.

Q. If you had to go back and do one thing in college differently, what would it be? Why?

I would study more. I didn’t focus on that enough, which probably was partially due to me not having to work that hard in high school. I exempted out of all of the freshman math classes, and tried to go straight into sophomore-level calculus but I wasn’t ready. I ended up with a B in the class, but I struggled early on because I hadn’t been taught some of the concepts in high school. If I had started off in the lower level (Calculus II), I would have had an easier time adjusting to the more rigorous academic environment of college.

Q. What is your current career?

I’m currently a project estimator for a construction company. It’s somewhat related to my degree, but really I got into the field because my dad has worked for the same company that I now work for since he was 18 years old. So I really knew the business and everyone there, and I have always felt comfortable there. I’ve been there full time for 10 years.

I started as a project coordinator, handling logistics for the start and end of projects. Now, I calculate the expected cost of projects. Math was my favorite subject in school, so I like that I get to use it now.

Q. What's one piece of advice you have for people going into your field?

In construction, remember that your job is dependent on the guys working underneath you. Be a fair supervisor, and be appreciative of what they do.

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