Clemson University Feature Stories

Jorge Calzadilla listens to students in the South Carolina Youth Leadership Academy Charter School talk about what they're studying. The school is just steps from Calzadilla's office on the Youth Learning Institute's campus in Pickens.

From fighter to mentor: How a former youth in trouble now leads youth to success.

By Crystal Boyles
Creative Services

Jorge Calzadilla has the energy of a teenager.

Scratch that. He has the energy of a room full of teens — and the pure, unfiltered passion. A passion to reach kids, to help them relate and to find inspiration in learning has driven every professional decision he’s made in life, and it was the driving force behind the idea to start the Clemson University Youth Learning Institute.

You see, learning wasn’t so easy for Calzadilla early on. A young Cuban in a Florida elementary school, he didn’t speak English, didn’t fit in, and had no outlet for his endless energy. To him, everyone sounded like the adults on the Charlie Brown cartoons. Consequently, he spent a lot of time in fights and in trouble.

Jorge Calzadilla“I was a determined spirit in my youth, but in the wrong direction,” he said.

In elementary school a physical education teacher took him under his wing, and things began to turn for Calzadilla. He finally had a focus, two actually — his newfound faith and sports.

And he had a goal — become a physical education teacher.

“I chose teaching because of experiences in my life. I wanted to become what had helped me,” he said.

Now, the staff and programs that he leads as executive director of the Youth Learning Institute impact thousands of kids a year. Last year, more than 100,000 individuals and 26,000 campers went through the group’s programs.

It all began at camp

After receiving his master’s and teaching for seven years, Calzadilla had the opportunity to work for Clemson, running a nine-week 4-H Summer Camp program at Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton. He lived on the property and was in charge of the upkeep and day-to-day happenings during summer camp. But that boundless energy of his left him a little bored, so he began looking into how to make the one-season camp into a year-round operation.

Success at Cooper led to Calzadilla’s management of Camp Long in Aiken. Eventually, he was working 49 percent of his time with John Kelly, now Clemson’s vice president of economic development, and an idea was born.

“I knew if we could become an institute, we could become bigger, faster, stronger,” Calzadilla said.

Thus the idea to create the Youth Learning Institute was tossed around and ultimately approved in 2001. Now the institute runs more than 120 programs across the state, everything from a STEM-focused charter school to a home for teen mothers in the foster system to an array of academic and camp experiences.

“I get joy out of seeing kids served,” Calzadilla said.

From student to staff

Calzadilla, left, speaks with his Chief of Staff Stephen Lance.Calzadilla’s fiery passion is contagious. He could talk to you for hours touching on everything from his love of video games and running to why kids today are losing soft skills to how today’s youth are tomorrow’s workforce and how their development is paramount to economic development. No topic is too big or too small, but all lead back to one place — youth.

Youth isn’t strictly confined to kids in elementary or high school; Calzadilla wants to engage Clemson students, too. He wants to put them in real-world experiences leading and being a part of YLI programs so they, too, are prepared for career success.

Even YLI’s Chief of Staff Stephen Lance is a product of Calzadilla’s teaching days. Lance was an eighth-grade student of Calzadilla’s in his last year of teaching. At the end of the year he told Lance to look him up when he turned 16 and he’d give Lance a job.

Calzadilla called eighth-grade Lance “a 13-year-old with a 40-year-old brain,” and Lance called his old phys ed teacher “hard-nosed, intense but caring.” A description that is as accurate today as it was when Lance, now a father of three, was a middle school student.

“He was a transformational teacher, and is a great boss. It’s a combination of him having such high expectations, but at the same time he genuinely cares. He expects a lot out of you — but he is just propelling you to be better than you think you can be,” Lance said.

The Youth Learning Institute is already more than Calzadilla ever envisioned it would be. And he loves every minute.

“Clemson lets me inspire young people, just like my coach did for me.”

Know a determined Clemson spirit who you’d like to see us write about? Contact University writer Crystal Boyles at

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