Sometimes the best stories take place behind the scenes. Thanks to the controversy about Clay Aiken's graduation this month, we just learned one of them.

Clay, who was runner-up in Fox's American Idol 2 before recording two platinum records, has been occupied with performing, recording and touring during most of 2003. As a result, some students at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte, apparently angered by the seven-ticket limit imposed on all graduates because of Clay's presence, questioned his eligibility for graduation. According to Niner Online, the UNCC student paper, Clay waived confidentiality so that school administrators could respond to those questions.

Clay's academic adviser Wendy Wood said that Clay had finished all of the required coursework for his degree in special education and planned to graduate in spring 2003 after finishing his student teaching (which, while required for a teaching certificate, is not required for an education degree). However, Clay asked to take the spring off so that he could participate in Idol, which would push his student teaching -- and his degree -- back to the fall. As Wood put it, "I think it's important for students to go after their dreams, even when I think they might be crazy. I guess I learned pretty quickly that in Clay's case, his potential to accomplish his dream was well within his grasp, even if he didn't know [it]."

As Clay progressed on the show, it became clear that he wouldn't have enough weeks available to do student teaching this fall, and so if he still wanted to graduate in December 2003, he would need to find some way to make up for the credit hours that he would lose. Enter "independent study."

At UNCC, as at most universities, independent study projects are student-initiated. The student must submit a proposal, obtain permission from a supervising instructor, and then have the proposal approved by a coordinator, the department chair and the dean of the college. Clay's independent study project was to conceptualize, research and plan a charitable foundation to help children with developmental disabilities.

Clay's adviser Wood said that "Clay had a clear vision of what changes he would like to see with regard to services for and acceptance of individuals with developmental disabilities in schools and communities. But there was a great deal of work that he needed to do to determine if there was a niche for his idea for a foundation, to determine its mission, and to plan how the foundation would go about accomplishing its mission and objectives." In other words, Clay needed to develop a precise mission statement, an environmental study and a business plan for such a foundation.

After the Idol finale in late May, Clay and Wood communicated through phone and email several times to set up the independent study project, including its requirements and timetable for completion. They also met once for Clay to sign the final independent study plan document. Successful completion of the project would give Clay enough hours to graduate ... and he not only completed it but also threw in an extra twist.

As Clay finished the project, he turned it into the real-life Bubel/Aiken Foundation, a step that was not required under the terms of his independent study. The foundation is currently raising funds through its "Look What Love Has Done" campaign, which is due to end shortly. Not quite the actions of your average pop star, but well in keeping with the behavior of an "American Idol" -- even an uncrowned one.

The foundation is named after Clay and Diane Bubel, who challenged him to audition for Idol ... and who has an autistic son named Michael.

Clay's impetus for actually starting the foundation, which surprised his academic advisers, can be summarized in his quote on the "Look What Love Has Done" site: "American celebrities have an amazing amount of influence on the way America thinks, feels and acts. I think that such an influence should be used in the most positive way possible."

Nancy Cooke, a professor who also coordinates special projects for UNCC's College of Education, noted that Clay would not be applying for his teaching license, since he still hasn't done student teaching. She added, "Maybe some day he will, and I know he's going to be wonderful teaching."

Although we have no idea whether Clay will ever teach in a classroom setting, we think his use of his newfound celebrity to promote the Bubel/Aiken Foundation is more noteworthy than just about anything else that has happened to him so far. Although we know that there is generally no relationship between celebrity and good character (just look at Paris Hilton for proof), we do wonder whether the difference in outcomes between Clay and initial Idol runner-up Justin Guarini, now without a recording contract, isn't in part a consequence of the differing uses they made of their time in the public spotlight.