Debby Mills first attended Clemson University’s Mile of Honor in 2019. At the time, it had been just over two years since the death of her oldest son, Mike, who passed away at 44 following a 10-month bout with lung cancer. Mike was a veteran of the United States Navy, one of three sons born to Mills who went on to serve in the military.
The Mile of Honor — a one-mile walk to honor and celebrate those who have served in the armed forces — has been held on Clemson University’s campus since 2015. During the event, Mills listened intently as a speaker by the name of Brennan Beck described the evolution of support for veterans who were navigating the transition from military to college life at Clemson.
“One of the things Mike was passionate and concerned about was the fact he was still paying off student loans, years after earning his college degree, even while being ill,” recalled Mills, a two-time graduate (’89 and ’96) and former adjunct faculty member in Clemson’s School of Nursing. “He was really passionate about the financial frustrations he experienced, and I heard Brennan talk about that very same topic at the event.”
Beck has served as Clemson’s director of Military and Veteran Engagement — which supports student veterans and military-connected students in their transition through the University — since May 2016. Mills connected with Beck shortly after the event, and within months, she and her family had established the Mike M. Smalley Veterans Memorial Scholarship.
The program was set up to provide two undergraduate students annually with a $1,000 scholarship. The family has now chosen to endow the scholarship so Smalley’s contribution to student veterans will continue indefinitely.
“We thought this would be the right time to endow it,” she said. “We have been very blessed to have people hear about Mike’s story.”
One of the inaugural scholarship recipients was Ty Robinson, a former student assistant under Beck in Military and Veteran Engagement and president of the Student Veterans Association (SVA).
“Ty told me, ‘I can’t tell you how excited we are to have this financial support,’” Mills said. “I was so glad I had the chance to meet him, learn more about him and talk about his experience and goals after Clemson.
“I knew this was something that would make Mike really happy, to know he was helping other student veterans.”
Financial hardship is the primary reason veterans drop out of college, and the creation of the scholarship in Smalley’s memory was merely the latest example of supportive resources that have helped Clemson’s student veteran community.
This coming Fall semester marks the fifth anniversary of Military and Veteran Engagement, which continues to make an enormous impact on the student veteran experience at Clemson. That first semester, the Student Veteran Center was crammed into a tiny space inside of Tillman Hall and saw sparse usage. Since moving its study and social hub to Vickery Hall in Fall 2018, more than 200 unique visitors regularly use the facility Beck calls home.
“When I focus on all the change that’s happened over five years, it’s amazing,” said Beck, a U.S. Army veteran. “Clemson was looking for someone to step into this role with a passion for helping veterans. I was able to build trust early with a few outspoken veterans and suddenly word of mouth spread what we were building. I don’t know what the magic element is, but I think a big part of it is just that we ‘get it.’”
Student veteran needs assessment data reflects Beck and his team definitely “get it.” While a widespread survey has not been available the past two years due to modified University operations, the most recent data showed a significant uptick in perception of Clemson’s veteran inclusivity and support services. In 2015, just half of those surveyed indicated knowing where to go with military-specific questions. In 2019, the number ballooned to 84 percent of those surveyed.
Several policies have been enacted on behalf of student veterans over the past five years as well. They receive priority registration opportunities, waivers for application fees, reduced transfer requirements and academic credits for attending qualified military schools.
Student veteran organizations are thriving. In 2020, Clemson’s SVA was named Chapter of the Year out of more than 1,500 chapters nationwide. A chapter was added for SALUTE Veterans National Honor Society as well, which acknowledges both the service and scholastic achievement of student veterans.
Military and Veteran Engagement has expanded orientation and graduation events for veterans. As a result, more student veterans are graduating year after year. In 2018, the office honored 84 graduates. The number grew to 119 this past year.
Peer and alumni mentoring programs have been established — a major focus the past 18 months as virtual operations took over amidst a global pandemic.
But more than any of the accolades or accomplishments over the past five years, though, Beck said it’s the informal conversations and relationships that bring him the most joy.
“For me, it’s the notes you get from veterans and military dependents that say, ‘If it wasn’t for this program, I would have left,’” he said. “That’s immediate affirmation of the value Military and Veteran Engagement provides. While it’s good to see national recognition, seeing the internal impact the program has on our students is most important. If something happens to me or our graduate assistant Peyton (Bade), the things that have been put in place will continue the legacy of being a veteran-inclusive school.”
Perhaps no support area is better built for sustainability than the growth in veteran-specific scholarships. Prior to 2016, Clemson never offered or awarded a veteran-specific scholarship. In 2020-21, the University awarded 36 such scholarships and fellowships for a total of $40,000.
On November 12 — the day before the Military Appreciation Day game against Connecticut — the SVA will host a golf tournament to raise money that will go toward endowing the Smalley Memorial Scholarship, so that it will pay out in perpetuity — much to the delight of Mills and her family.
“We feel so honored they have chosen to support Mike’s scholarship,” Mills added.
As Military and Veteran Engagement celebrates five years this Fall, the organization is more visible and has a higher profile on campus — thus providing individuals more opportunities to give. It’s exactly the kind of support for Clemson student veterans Mills envisioned after hearing Beck speak so passionately a couple of years ago.
“With two sons in the Air Force who are also Clemson graduates, along with Mike’s service in the Navy, we’re really glad to do this and to help student veterans at Clemson.”