As engagement grows, resources expand for student veterans at Clemson
Brennan Beck knows first-hand what it’s like to feel isolated from a regular student population.
“We didn’t have a lot of resources for veterans when I was in school,” said Beck, “so I felt on my own a lot.
“One of my goals here is to ensure our veterans don’t feel that way.”
At 31, there isn’t much Beck hasn’t seen. And there isn’t much he hasn’t done for the student veteran population at Clemson University, either.
Following two combat deployments and 24 months of fighting in Iraq, Beck left the Army in 2010 to a world he never imagined. On his own for the first time, he suffered from anxiety, depression and alcoholism. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Beck lost his best friend Ross McGinnis — one of only about 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients in United States history — to a grenade explosion in 2006 and was himself wounded in Baghdad a year later. Combined with all he had seen as an infantryman, he was experiencing nightmares and flashbacks.
But in unlikely fashion, Beck received just the intervention he needed. He discovered a local veterans writing group in California while attending junior college. Because he struggled verbalizing his experiences in the Army, he found an outlet through pen and paper.
“It was amazing, because I was almost like a closed book,” said Beck, a Purple Heart recipient. “I took a leap of faith (sharing my story), and the feedback was so remarkable.”
Beck transferred to Sonoma State University and received a B.A. in English in May 2014. Shortly after leaving the Army, he met his future wife, a native of Liberty, South Carolina. The two were married following his graduation and moved to the area. When Clemson was looking for a program coordinator for its English department later that year, Beck applied and landed the job.
One of the first things he did on campus? Establish a veterans writing group, similar to the one he’d enjoyed in California.
Little did he know at the time how quickly it would change his Clemson Experience.
Jeff Brown found it odd Clemson was a former military institution, yet didn’t have formal procedures in place to advocate for veterans, outside of a student-led organization. As the director of the Office of Student Transitions and Family Programs, and with the help of assistant Rebecca Atkinson, he approached the former vice president for Student Affairs about potentially creating a position to serve this unique population.
“The Student Veterans Association had a faculty advisor in Ken Weaver, who was a big advocate for them,” Brown said. “But after Becca connected with some of the student leaders, we knew we needed someone on our campus. So, we moved forward with a proposal a few years ago and hired a graduate assistant within our office, John Fix, to work with student veterans.”
Fix was instrumental in acquiring an area for the veteran population in Tillman Hall. The Army ROTC program had used room 204 as storage space, but opted to share it with the student veterans. What resulted was the Student Veterans Center, covering roughly 300 square feet with no windows, some appliances, a conference table, desk and chairs.
“We have over 300 veterans enrolled annually at Clemson, and another 300 or more dependents of veterans,” Brown said. “Most are non-traditional students in their late 20s or early 30s, and many have spouses, partners and children.”
When Student Transitions and Family Programs earned approval for a full-time position to work with veterans, Brown turned to Beck. He was hired in May 2016 after meeting with Atkinson and Fix about his work with the campus writing group.
Beck recognized the Student Veterans Center provided a great resource, but couldn’t help but wonder why the space was seeing only about 200 visits per semester. He also worked to figure out the disconnect that existed between veterans and the student body.
“I received a lot of calls right away about issues with veterans failing classes, appearing on conduct reports — stuff like that,” he said. “I had to help hold them accountable and connect them to the resources available to them. Every semester since, we’ve seen less of those incidents.”
Atkinson and Beck also began expanding the advocacy and support for student veterans across campus. A standing committee was formed of staff members from all types of areas — academic support, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), undergraduate studies, graduate school, the Michelin Career Center. Beck took over regularly conducted Green Zone training, an initiative aimed at educating faculty, staff and students and building a better understanding of the veteran population at Clemson.
One by one, pieces began falling in place for Clemson to better serve its student veterans.
The Student Veterans Association (SVA) is celebrating its 10th anniversary this academic year and currently consists of about 40 dues-paying members. One of them is 23-year-old Lizz Sampson, the organization’s acting president and a 2012 graduate of nearby Daniel High School.
Sampson’s path is similar to that of many student veterans — non-traditional.
She began her military career as a member of the Army ROTC at Baylor University. But she didn’t find it to her liking and enlisted in the Air Force Reserves as a medic. She’s spent time at Pope Army Airfield in North Carolina and Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. She enrolled at Clemson in the spring of 2017 following a short stint at Lander University, where she majored in nursing and founded the school’s SVA.
“We’re trying to grow our campus involvement,” she said. “We have a new executive council this semester and are trying to put it all together. We’re planning the Walk for Veterans and a golf tournament. But we’ve also started some programs with Purple Heart Homes and Upstate Warrior Solution.”
While forming meaningful collaborations with both 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations are important to Sampson, so is her coursework. She hopes to one day be a clinical psychologist for the military, assisting with cases of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
A psychology major with a minor in equine industry, Sampson aims to take her career goal a step further.
“I would love to get a doctorate in psychology and work with veterans experiencing PTSD and TBI in a different way,” she said. “I want to consider using therapeutic horseback riding as a treatment, because it’s a way for them to connect with an animal and let emotions go.”
In the meantime, Sampson enjoys her role with the SVA. She is grateful for the space available to the student veteran population, but is eager to see it soon expand to a new location in Vickery Hall.
The new space will be two and a half times the size of the current proportions in Tillman, a big deal to Sampson and others, who use the Student Veterans Center as a place to relax and connect with one another.
“The most recent semester, we had about 2,600 visits to the center,” Beck said. “It’s gotten extremely cramped and people can’t study efficiently. So, we advocated for additional space because of the spike in engagement. I’m pleased with our leadership for understanding that need and moving us to Vickery.”
Beyond the impact provided through the Student Veterans Center, Beck continues to tackle other critical issues such as financial aid and priority registration.
The GI Bill covers in-state tuition rates for students electing to use it. Clemson is a Yellow Ribbon school, which helps cover some of the out-of-state tuition expenses for veterans and military-related dependents using the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Yellow Ribbon pays $3,500 — half paid by Clemson and matched by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — leaving out-of-state students with a few thousand dollars of expenses each term. Because it doesn’t cover the entire expense, Beck continues to grow Clemson’s support of the veteran population.
Just last week, it was announced Clemson’s student veterans would be receiving priority registration for the first time. Due to specific parameters within the GI Bill and a number of unique needs related to veterans, Beck called it a huge development.
“I benefitted from it as a student and know our veterans will as well,” Beck said. “Many of our student veterans have families, and some are adjusting to injuries or disabilities, so priority registration is a great opportunity for us to further demonstrate our support.”
Through the hard work of Jennifer Elliott in the Registrar’s Office and Beck’s VA work study students, Clemson has made great strides in better identifying and verifying enrolled veterans, a population that now benefits from programs and services geared uniquely to its needs.
Beck knows all too well the tendency to feel isolated. To be disconnected. The desire to figure it out on your own.
And he’s intent on changing that at Clemson, one step at a time.
“They don’t have to be part of the SVA or use our center,” he said. “But if a veteran asks us questions, they need to know people are in their corner.
“And we do a pretty good job with that.”