Embracing a veteran-friendly campus
Jared Lyon stood before a crowd of Clemson students, faculty and staff in Tillman Hall on Friday, November 1 and delivered an impassioned 45-minute speech. His message and subsequent challenge to the audience was simple, yet thought-provoking.
The story of America cannot be told without telling the story of student veterans.
“Service members have been taking off their uniforms and transitioning into postsecondary education since the American Revolution,” said Lyon, president and CEO of the Student Veterans of America (SVA).
Lyon is living proof. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and master’s from Syracuse University following his time as a submariner and diver in the United States Navy. Now, he presides over 1,500 chapters and more than 750,000 student veterans that make up SVA membership nationwide.
Lyon’s presentation, entitled “A Veteran’s Contribution to Higher Education,” not only resonated with those in attendance, but also seemed to intentionally draw a parallel to Clemson’s rich military heritage and recent efforts to engage and celebrate the unique population that is student veterans.
The newest evidence of Clemson’s increasing support for student veterans has come this fall in the form of the very first veteran-specific scholarship payouts. The recipients were Mariah Williams, a senior biological sciences major, and John Bitter, a freshman engineering major. The financial support is the product of the Veterans Scholarship Endowment, which was created in 2016 by the military affairs committee of Clemson Undergraduate Student Government (CUSG). The endowment will pay out two scholarships again in Fall 2020 and more in the future as the overall fund continues to grow.
“Stephen Smallwood and Austin McIlwain deserve a ton of credit for creating this fund,” said Sam Wigley, former president of Clemson’s SVA chapter and a 2016 graduate in political science. “The original goal was to raise $25,000 in five years, and we managed to nearly hit that mark in the first year alone. I am so glad the members of the SVA that came after me decided this scholarship endowment was a top priority. The SVA has fully lived up to its motto of ‘Continued Service,’ and I am sure it will go on to even better things in the future.”
The financial support continued in November when it was announced that Navy submarine manufacturer Newport News Shipbuilding established a scholarship program for student veterans enrolled in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
Wigley, a former infantryman in the U.S. Marine Corps, has seen Clemson’s support for student veterans grow by leaps and bounds since his graduation. One of the primary reasons why is due to the work and vision of another infantryman — albeit from the U.S. Army ranks —Brennan Beck.
Beck’s story has been well documented. He saw combat during two deployments to Iraq and spent more than four years in the Army, but it was the “jarring” transition to civilian life and, more specifically, postsecondary education that created a disconnect between himself and the traditional 18- to 22-year-old college student.
“I went from Iraq to a small school in northern California in the span of about three months,” he said. “I was hoping to find great resources and to connect with other veterans like myself to lead the way and guide me. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what I faced. When I had troubles or challenges or questions, I felt very much alone.”
Beck went on to graduate in 2014 and joined the Clemson Department of English a year later after marrying a South Carolina native. He was drawn to Clemson’s military heritage and assumed the support for veterans would be second to none. But he was surprised that it was a work in progress at the time.
“I was expecting a robust, veteran-friendly campus where we had great programming and supportive policies in place,” he admitted. “In a lot of cases, that wasn’t what I found.”
He knew student veterans would need scholarship support. They needed priority registration because the typical student veteran is older. Some are married, and many balance full-time employment obligations alongside schoolwork.
In 2016, Beck was hired as assistant director for Military & Veteran Engagement. Three years later, new initiatives he had hoped to see when he first took the job, including priority registration and application fee waivers, have come to fruition.
The biggest achievement took place last November when a new, expanded Student Veteran Center opened in Vickery Hall. A place where student veterans can connect to campus resources, study or socialize with other veterans, the center is nearly twice as big as its previous location in Tillman Hall.
The center’s opening has coincided with a banner year in Military & Veteran Engagement. Through a collaboration of external partners, the SVA chapter and CUSG’s military affairs committee, the fifth annual Walk for Veterans saw a record 350 participants this past spring. The goal is to eventually attract 493 participants, one for each name memorialized on Clemson’s Scroll of Honor.
Clemson’s student veterans are more responsive than ever. When a needs assessment was conducted in 2015, just 54 student veterans responded. This year, the figure nearly doubled, giving Beck and University leaders a more accurate makeup of this nontraditional population.
Forty percent of Clemson’s student veterans are married. Twenty-five percent have children. Forty-five percent have a service-related injury or disability. Almost all commute from off campus.
“We’re better able to identify our veterans through data, and today I’m quite proud to announce that we have 356 verified student veterans, either current or previous,” Beck said. “We are able to highlight other responsibilities that come with their military service that set them apart from traditional students. However, like many Clemson students, our student veterans are also high achieving.”
Available data shows the top three majors among Clemson’s student veterans are engineering, business and computer science — three high-demand, highly advantageous degree programs. The past three graduation ceremonies have seen 91 student veterans earn degrees from Clemson.
Individually, the results and accolades speak for themselves. Navy veteran and bioengineering Ph.D. student Melissa McCullough received the Pat Tillman Scholarship, a prestigious award reserved for only 60 service members annually. Amada Nicks, a Master at Arms in the Navy for five and a half years who graduated with a psychology degree last December, was accepted into the 2019 Focus Forward Fellowship program aimed at engaging military-connected women beyond the classroom. She followed in the footsteps of Lizz Sampson, a 2018 graduate and former SVA chapter president at Clemson.
The current generation of Clemson student veterans is also thriving. Yet another former chapter president, Ashley Johnson, attended the 2018 SVA Leadership Institute in Washington, D.C., as one of only 104 elected officers across the country. Johnson is also a Navy veteran who spent more than three years in the service as a nuclear machinist’s mate.
“It’s meant a lot to be part of a university where everyone who’s a part of it cares so much about it,” Johnson said. “Connecting with other student veterans has been invaluable to my growth.”
Johnson yielded her presidential duties this spring to Ty Robinson, who served four years in the Air Force as an engineering technician. He first became involved with student veteran support as a member of a work-study program through Veterans Affairs. This spring, he was a co-recipient of the Division of Student Affairs’ Rising Star Award. Through his role with the SVA, he aims to build and sustain empowered veterans through fellowship, support and continuous service.
Several students have benefited from the aspect of fellowship. Victoria Graham, treasurer for the SVA chapter, served in the Navy from 2011 to 2017 and was an electrician on board the USS Nimitz. John Wilde serves as the SVA’s event coordinator and is a fourth-generation Clemson student who enrolled in 2018 following a transfer. Wilde served eight years in the Navy and went on three deployments on board two destroyers. He was actually accepted into Clemson as an active-duty service member.
“I was invited to attend a transfer-specific Orientation with a separate piece for student veterans,” he said. “That helped me meet Brennan and other students connected on campus that I see nearly every day in the Veteran Center. It helped me knowing I wasn’t alone coming into the college experience.”
Beck said the most recent needs assessment shows 85 percent of surveyed student veterans know where they need to go for military support. Just four years ago, that number was around 50 percent.
“We’re clearly moving the needle in the right direction,” he said. “We’re serving and supporting more veterans at a higher rate, but we’re not done. We can all work together to reach the highest level.”
Lyon believes the idea of veteran inclusiveness is the most critical element to fostering a more “veteran-friendly” campus. He listed five needs common to student veterans that would dispel the narrative veterans don’t belong in higher education: access to child care, academic advising, financial assistance, employment and peer relationships. Veterans change their major 2.6 times on average, higher than the national rate, and they graduate with significant debt, despite the aid of the post-9/11 GI Bill.
But, Lyon noted, student veterans actually outperform the regular college population in the classroom, boasting a 3.35 cumulative GPA compared to the 3.1 average of their civilian counterparts. On top of that, unemployment is at an all-time low for veterans.
Earlier this fall, Clemson was named a 2020 Military Friendly Employer, one of only 290 employers in the nation to earn the designation. Lyon believes possessing a similar mindset for today’s veterans who are engaged in the classroom will go a long way to telling their story, a story of service and incredible impact on American life not unlike previous generations.
“We have an opportunity in postsecondary education to help bridge the gap between civilians who may never have served and our nation’s military,” he said. “We need to bring in a new notion of veteran inclusiveness. When we drive that concept on our college and university campuses, we have the opportunity to engage in a diversity of thought and experience.
“Veterans don’t claim to be better than anyone else, but we’re here to be part of our communities and to strive to create campuses — like Clemson — that are inclusive of our generation.”