What are likely to be some of USC's most well-seasoned freshmen came together Tuesday night as members of Pillars for Carolina gathered at Spirit Communications Park for their program's opening ceremony.
Pillars for Carolina was founded in 2011 to give future Gamecocks a head start on their campus experience. The organization holds a five-day program in which students stay on campus, perform community service and acclimate themselves to the university atmosphere. Reflecting the popularity of its program, the organization's membership has grown significantly over time. The 2011 group photo displayed on the organization's website shows only a few dozen students; the 2015 photo shows well over 100.
Only a few years ago, third-year psychology student Chase Rathfoot might not have entered Pillars under her own power. Now, as student co-director for the program, she hopes to give back to students what she got from it.
A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Rathfoot did not know anyone on campus when she first arrived in Columbia. She was skeptical when her parents signed her up, but quickly warmed to the program. She said she still keeps in touch with her mentors, even those who have graduated.
"We do a lot of personal growth and leadership training," Rathfoot said. "We really encourage our students to reflect on what it is that they're doing at the university and as part of themselves and really grow as not just a person, but as a University of South Carolina student."
Activities planned through the end of this week include an on-campus version of the CBS reality game show "The Amazing Race," community service projects around Columbia and athletic competition they call the Olympics.
Rathfoot encourages students who are skeptical of joining Pillars to try something new. In the process, she said, they might be pleasantly surprised.
"By the end of the week, we've had people 99 percent of people say that they feel more prepared to attend college," Rathfoot said. "I don't see a downside to ever coming to kind of an extended orientation."
Before dinner was served students chatted among themselves and with group mentors as Pillars director of operations Patrick Binette, a fourth-year finance student, shuffled from table to table.
"It's my passion to be working with sports in some capacity as well as the setting up, the establishment [or] development of events," Binette said as student body president Ross Lordo, a Pillars alumnus himself, walked into the room. "So this has been a really good experience for me and seeing it all come to fruition the last two weeks has been very awesome."
Binette was signed up for the program as an incoming freshman by his mother, a USC employee. He quickly "fell in love" and later became a mentor for the program before taking over as director of operations this summer.
"There's no better way to start off," Binette said. "You learn the values and you are able to withhold them and set other Carolinians to the same standards and really become a leader on campus."