A 20-year promise
Jason Chavis never expected to work at a university, much less graduate from one. His road to Clemson was not easy. He grew up in Gig Harbor, Washington, and came from a divorced family. He hated school and had bad grades.
Historically, education wasn’t a priority in his family. His father got his GED after joining the Navy. His grandfather taught himself to read using the funny papers, and he died not being able to sign his own name.
However, Chavis did want to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and serve in the military. He joined the Marine Corps in August 1995, after graduating high school. By then, he wanted to go to college. He said his parents couldn’t afford it, so he’s used the GI bill make that dream a reality.
Chavis didn’t have a carefully constructed education and career plan after the military. What he did have was a promise he made to himself. As long as every move he made was an effort to keep that promise, he knew he was on right path.
“Fast forward 20 years after I joined the Marine Corps—I got accepted to Clemson University then I dropped my retirement papers,” Chavis said. “Now, I’ve cashed in on a 20-year promise I made to myself to get an education.”
Chavis is the new academic advisor for Clemson’s political science department and sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department. He graduated from Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department in May 2018.
He credits much of his success to lessons learned during his military career. During his time in the Marine Corps., he worked as a military police officer, military working dog handler and kennel master, training and handling dogs. During that time, he traveled to Japan, Korea, Iraq and throughout the U.S.
He also performed recruiting duty in Missouri, where he said he found his niche. He knew that not every individual was ready for military life, so he would talk to them about their aspirations. He went the extra mile to help connect them to local employers. If an applicant was in trouble, he would connect them to a counselor.
“I’ve always been attracted to serving people and being part of something bigger than myself,” Chavis said. “That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to join the Marine Corps.”
Being part of something bigger is what made Clemson as a source of education and employment became so attractive. Chavis learned about Clemson from his second wife, who is a 2001 graduate with parents who were both Clemson professors. Having that same kind of tight-knit relationship with a university was something Chavis wanted for himself.
“We came here for the spring game. I said ‘This place is amazing, and I’m going to retire here,’” Chavis said. “Whether I got into Clemson or not was a different story. But I wanted to be here because there’s just something in these hills.”
When he received his acceptance to Clemson, he was in Okinawa, Japan and had orders to Beaufort, South Carolina. He had good grades and was taking all online classes, but getting accepted still didn’t seem real.
When Chavis walked across the stage in May 2018, he fulfilled the promise he had made to himself, but it was more impactful than he anticipated. The years and life experiences that separated him from his fellow classmates meant that his diploma took on extra meaning.
“I went to Clemson to set an example for my kids, so that they would understand that a college education or any education is important,” he said. “Whether that’s a technical skill or community service, you’re always moving forward. You’re not a settler.”
Before finding a job in the advising center, Chavis applied to numerous jobs across the Upstate, from custodial duties to jobs that would have allowed him to be outside a little more than he is currently. He does see the irony in getting a degree in parks, recreation and tourism management but spending most of his time indoors.
However, setting isn’t as important to him as the ultimate goal of the work. He compares his current job to the one he fell in love with while in the Marines, working with the next generation. He misses his time in the Marine Corps, but he’s getting the chance to once again effect positive change and impact young people’s lives.
“The kids at this school are so smart. They try to downplay it, but they are smart, and this job becomes great when you start making those individual impacts and see how much these people can grow,” Chavis said. “The people I’m impacting now aren’t in uniform and for the most part they have longer hair, but they’ve all got adversity to climb through.”