Diversity

Class of 2021: Sterling Clay Has Learned to “Compete With Yourself, and Not Others”

Above all else, Clay says, he’s always unapologetically true to his authentic self.

“Not once have I found myself trying to pretend to be something or someone I’m not,” Commerce student Sterling Clay says. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Sterling Clay landed his dream job. Thanks to his diligence studying in the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, he’ll start his professional life as a Technology Consulting Analyst with Accenture Federal Services, come graduation this spring. Yet it wasn’t all that long ago when he was struggling to find his way—a difficult period during which Clay says UVA wasn’t on his radar.

Hailing from Point Clear, AL—where he dropped out of high school before deciding to earn his GED—Clay said that, at first, he hadn’t set the bar very high for himself.

“I didn’t even know if I was capable of becoming a successful college student,” he said.

But once committed to his academics, things quickly changed for the better; his first semester at Northern Virginia Community College was a turning point.

“It was the first time in my life where I actually felt like I was capable of attaining a good education if I just put my mind to it. And so that’s what I did,” Clay said, rightfully proud of achieving a 4.0 GPA throughout his first two college years.

The following April, he was thrilled to discover his hard work paid off.

“I accepted my admissions offer and made my deposit to attend within the hour,” he recalled.

Arriving on Grounds that fall as a third-year student at McIntire was nothing short of surreal for him, he said. “Here I was, at one of the top undergraduate business schools in the nation, when just a few years prior I was working to attain my GED.”

His transition to UVA life took off before the first day of classes through McIntire’s three-day “Commerce Connections” orientation, where he met with faculty, staff, and some fellow students who would become his first friends on Grounds.

Buoyed by an upbeat personality that helps him find the humor in any situation, it’s easy to see why other students gravitate toward Clay and his positive disposition. He modestly deflected that assessment and credited UVA’s more than 800 student-led organizations for making it easy to meet people who share mutual interests.

“Even as a transfer student, I’ve had ample opportunities to get involved,” he said. In his two years at UVA, he served as a student ambassador, a transfer mentor, and a research and teaching assistant under Professor Paul Seaborn, whom Clay acknowledged for helping him navigate the challenges of being a transfer student and pursuing his future in consulting.

Additionally, the IT and Management student served as program director for Madison House’s Creating Assets, Savings & Hope program, which trains undergrads to become volunteer income tax assistants.

But perhaps the most significant of all his extracurricular endeavors, he said, has been spent serving as president of Pride at McIntire. The organization had been dormant for three years before Clay revived the group, which focuses on guiding LGBTQ+ students interested in exploring careers in business while helping to promote acceptance and inclusion University-wide.

His work with Pride at McIntire reflects a trait he considers most important: Above all else, he said, he’s always unapologetically true to his authentic self.

“Not once have I found myself trying to pretend to be something or someone I’m not,” he said. “A big part of this comes from my identity as an LGBTQ student, and I recognize that not everyone shares the same privilege I do, not feeling like they have to ‘conform to the norm.’”

That independent-minded philosophy has carried over into his academic approach at the Commerce School. It’s also one of the most powerful lifelong lessons he says he’s learned at UVA: “Compete with yourself, and not with others.”

That outlook has affected him on all levels. “As soon as I adjusted to the newly rigorous environment I found myself in, I began challenging myself to continually do more and perform better,” he said. “I now find myself striving to do more and be better, whether it’s in my academic, personal, or professional life. I can say with confidence this has made me a much stronger person today.”

As he prepares to embark on his career in tech-related consulting, he’s already a bit wistful, mentally preparing for how much he’s going to miss being on Grounds. His favorite spot: the Lawn side of the Rotunda steps.

He recalled many good times there, from singing “The Good Old Song” during Valentine’s Day with the LGBTQ Center as a part of their “Love Is’ celebration, to daily outings for lunch breaks with friends while taking in the Lawn’s idyllic verdure.

The spot was also where he had one of his favorite memories, the day before the spring 2021 semester began.

“Inclement weather covered Grounds in inches of snow—something I had yet to experience. Because I live two miles away, I wasn’t planning to make the trip to see it in person, but rather, live vicariously through my friends’ Instagram stories.

“However, one of my closest friends, Leanne, did some heavy persuading to convince me to drive to Grounds and join her on the Lawn to scope out all the snowmen students had created as part of a competition,” he said, insisting that every UVA student would agree that the Lawn offers “one of the most serene places to spend time,” especially when blanketed in the glimmer of winter white.

Clay said he’ll also miss wandering off Grounds to Charlottesville’s restaurants and stores on the Downtown Mall, especially the antique shops, where he regularly made many finds. “I ended up purchasing a really old print of the Rotunda that depicts families flying kites on the Lawn. It’ll be nice to take this with me once I leave Charlottesville, as it’ll serve as a reminder of all the memories I made during my time spent on Grounds.”

Undoubtedly, Clay will return. An item on his professional bucket list involves recruiting students to join his new employer, Accenture. “One of the first-ever networking events I attended was actually an Accenture event for LGBTQ students at UVA. That’s something I’d like to be a part of in the future—except this time, on the other side of things!”

This story originally appeared in UVA Today April 26, 2021.

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