Emily DaBruzzi was scouring the Clemson University employment website in January 2022 and was awe-struck with what she found. At the time, DaBruzzi was serving as a program coordinator with the University of North Florida’s Military and Veterans Resource Center when she came across an advertisement for Clemson University’s vacant director of Military and Veteran Engagement position.
“My husband and I were looking for military-friendly places and were interested in rural areas or mountains for our next move, and I literally saw the job listed the first day I looked on the website,” she recalled. “All of the people I talked to, including my husband, told me it was a sign. I had to apply.”
She did, and was quickly identified by the search committee as one of the leading candidates. But as she researched the position further, she made another key discovery — Clemson and North Florida (UNF) had a number of similarities within their respective student veteran and military-connected populations.
At UNF, DaBruzzi personally connected with about 1,000 students each term, including veterans, spouses and dependents. She was the school’s lead certifying official and helped manage educational benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). At Clemson, the VA certifying official resides in Records and Registration.
And while she would not bear any certifying responsibility under Clemson’s job description, DaBruzzi found the opportunity to create, implement and manage support programs for student veterans and military-connected students too good to pass up. She was ultimately offered the job and began overseeing Military and Veteran Engagement on April 25.
“When it came down to it, I think I checked a lot of boxes,” she said. “So many systems are in place at Clemson to support military-connected students, and I’m very thankful to be here and a part of that work.
“It was an easy transition and onboarding for me at Clemson.”
DaBruzzi has been able to make natural connection points with student veterans at both of her stops in higher education, in large part due to her military background.
She grew up in a small town in Wisconsin but didn’t come from a traditional military family. She was first intrigued by the possibility of a military career after she attended a cousin’s bootcamp graduation as a high school junior.
“My cousin, Kristin, and her father both served,” she said. “And for some reason I was intrigued by the thought of being a linguist.”
DaBruzzi eventually met with a Navy recruiter and enlisted at 18 after graduating high school a semester early. She left home for bootcamp in February 2001 at Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois — just north of Chicago. True to her intrigue, she went on to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and began studying Korean.
DaBruzzi’s first job was with the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland. She later relocated to the NSA’s office in Hawaii and was deployed any time a ship needed a Korean translator. She achieved the rank of petty officer first class and earned numerous awards, including the Navy Commendation Medal, while supervising more than 200 sailors on a daily basis at the Navy Information Operations Command.
She met her husband, Chris Smith, in the Navy while serving on active duty until 2011. By then, they were also starting to build a family.
“I decided on a whim to leave the military and use my GI Bill to go to school,” she explained. “I’m the poster child for a terrible transition to civilian life. The timing was bad and my use of resources was bad, but Hawaii Pacific University was extremely military-friendly.”
As class valedictorian, she graduated summa cum laude with a psychology degree in 2013. DaBruzzi tried her hand as an elementary school teacher working with gifted and talented students in Florida from 2013-18.
But she had an itch to further serve the military community that needed to be scratched. That’s when she interviewed for and ultimately landed the UNF program coordinator position.
“I needed to fulfill the desire to give back and help people transition better than I did,” she said.
Fast forward four years, and now DaBruzzi is hoping to make a similar impact at another military-friendly institution in Clemson. A self-proclaimed “big dreamer,” her everyday responsibilities include advocating for student veterans and military-connected students, coordinating the VA work-study program and advising the Student Veterans of America and SALUTE Honor Society student organizations.
She’s well-versed on the more than $50,000 allotted annually through veteran-specific scholarships and hopes to exponentially improve it each year. She wants to continue to work with the Admissions Office on veteran-friendly processes. She sees it all as part of an intentional effort to better serve a unique population on Clemson’s campus.
DaBruzzi may be the poster child for a less-than-ideal transition to civilian life, but now she’s pulling off an admirable juggling act. She began her role at Clemson exactly one week after Smith returned from a deployment on USS The Sullivans out of Mayport Naval Station (Jacksonville, Florida). He is set to retire at the end of the year and will join DaBruzzi and their children in the Upstate after a 20-year career in the Navy.
Her oldest child, Trenton, is following in his mother’s footsteps and is enrolled in the Defense Language Institute. After graduation, he’ll end up at Fort Gordon with NSA Georgia.
With Smith deployed much of the past year, it was admittedly a difficult undertaking for DaBruzzi. But she believes she is exactly where she needs to be, and received affirmation in the unlikeliest of places this Spring.
“I was on the beach in Florida and received a call about being a finalist for the Clemson job,” she said. “No less than five minutes after getting the call, I walked by this really cool orange and purple starfish. That was divine intervention; it was too perfect!”