Nevada Dawson getting ready to begin today’s tricks (Photos by Jayden Simmons)
Drew Dhillon and his friends sit laughing at a rickety, half-rusted picnic table on the patio of the University of South Carolina’s Russell House student union. Despite its haphazard look, it’s the sacred meeting spot for one of the school’s most recognizable clubs, which meets here to enjoy each other’s company and watch their friends hit ollies.
(FYI: An ollie is a move where a skater leaps in the air with their skateboard).
Dhillon is the skate club’s founder. He started it last year with the goal of finding a place where he and his friends could skate without being disturbed by campus police and university faculty.
“I was tired of USC police, tired of Columbia police,” said Dhillon, a junior computer information systems major. “So I decided to start a club because I was told that once you start a club you become more official. There’s a lot of people on campus that skate, bike and do X-game sports.”
Dhillon said he started the club with a fellow junior cyber intelligence major, Ta’Rajay Bowie. Bowie said he had never picked up a skateboard until meeting Dhillon in a freshman math class.
“It was like a small class, maybe five or six of us,” Bowie said. “And two of them or three of them skateboarded already. We would just walk to the Community Table (an on-campus dining hall) and eat together as a class. And I was like, ‘Man these guys are just skateboarding away.’ So I got a skateboard by peer pressure and became a part of his friend group.”
Dhillon and Bowie laughed as they reflected, pointing out the common trend of kids having a skateboard growing up but never using it.
“Technically, I’ve been skating since I was a kid, but I really don’t even count that,” Dhillon said.
While some members never skated until joining the club, other members still haven’t skated – even after joining. They just like being in the club.
“This isn’t an archetype,” said Brooklyn Nevarez, a senior psychology major. “This is so many different people from different backgrounds that think different things, are involved in different things, and on different paths in life,”
Bowie epitomizes the break from stereotypes — he’s a member of the student senate and the program chair for the National Society of Black Engineers.
Trying to rid the stereotypical perception of the skater in the public eye has not been easy for the group, especially when it comes to university officials and police.
Bowie said that one afternoon in May, he was stopped by an officer while watching the sunset in the Discovery Plaza Garage on Park Street on campus. He said he wasn’t skating, but nevertheless was stopped and questioned by police about graffiti in the garage.
“I have no problem holding accountability for the club if we do any of that, but nobody from the club actually does that,” he said. “They ended up running a whole background check on me just because I had a skateboard in my hand,” said Bowie, demonstrating how he was holding his skateboard throughout the police questioning.
After that incident, he has worked to create safe skating places on campus.
“We had lots of conversations with Russell House directors,” Bowie said. “We tried to get a small spot on the other side of Greene Street. It would benefit us because we’d be in a concentrated space, out of everyone’s way.”
As for the Russell House, University Union Director Kim McMahon said her conversation with the club mostly consisted of rules and regulations.
“My conversation focused on understanding their needs for gathering and practicing — and how to engage them in the campus community in such a way that allows them to practice their trick shots without damaging the furniture,” McMahon said.
Club members say they also have discussed creating a mini-skate park on campus. But McMahon said the plans never advanced to a formal level.
The club’s growth plan, however, has gone well. “The second I made the organization public, we got 100 members in a month,” Dhillon said.
The club has also increased its social media presence. Nevada Dawson went viral on TikTok for landing a kickflip every day for a year straight.
“I saw this other guy on TikTok doing 360 flips every day,” said Dawson, a senior chemical engineering major. “He inspired me to skate harder, and once I learned kickflips, I decided I didn’t want to lose them. So I started a daily kickflip challenge.”
Dawson said they were relieved to complete that final kickflip, joking that they were finally able to give their shins a break.
“We were just proud of them and happy for them to land the trick,” Bowie said. “This is just one example out of thousands of how much we love to see each other grow.”
The club has become a larger and closer group as they’ve continued to meet, and many members view it as a family.
“Street skating has another type of bond,” Bowie added. “Cheering each other on, trying to land tricks for the first time, falling and getting right back up with your friends all cheering.”
The club is about half white, half minority, he said.
“I started this group to create a safe space for us, physically and mentally,” Dhillon said.
And that space may come at any time – even overnight, Bowie said, laughing and reflecting on a time when Dhillon called him at 2 a.m. to skate and chat.
“It’s definitely an outlet,” Bowie said. Being in college, it’s hard, and everyone goes through a lot. Mental health is a big factor, and I use skateboarding as my motivation.”
Sophomore marketing and management major Shania Jackson said that as a freshman, the group was less intimidating than other student organizations.
“They are the most accepting people on this campus, full of such different creative energies, and so spontaneous,” Jackson said.
Nevarez slapped her hands together, repeatedly saying that if this group was nothing else, they were real. She said she finally found the real friendships she’s been looking for her entire life.
And she knows where to find them each day.
“We have people to guard that one sacred table outside Russell,” Dhillon said.
Dawson did an ollie every day on TikTok for a year straight. The club’s skaters get good practice outside Russell House.
The club skates all around the campus, from the bridge on Pickens Street to the Longstreet Theatre on Sumter Street.
Many skaters are known for stylish board designs. Drew Dhillon has his own sticker brand that he sells.