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Lizz Sampson has found refuge in and around the stables at Wild Hearts Therapeutic Center in Seneca. As a psychology major and equine industry minor, the equine therapy center is not only ground zero for her studies, but a peaceful place where she can cope and process her own past.
Sampson is an Air Force reservist, and her interest in addressing mental health issues, particularly among veterans, has only grown throughout her time in the military and at Clemson. She has discovered her passion for using alternative therapies such as equine therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans—including herself—and her work in this area has been recognized with a coveted fellowship with the Military Family Research Institute (MFRI).
It’s clear very quickly that Sampson isn’t in it for recognition. She’s just trying to replicate for others the same benefits she receives working with horses such as Clara, an animal that is currently undergoing rehabilitation in order to trust people again.
“I’m more ‘me’ at Wild Hearts than I am in most places,” Sampson says. “I come out here for my own version of therapy. It’s interesting [to work with Clara] because I’m also trying to rehab and trust people again and enhance my own communication.”
Sampson says she is more surprised than anyone that she has enjoyed an already lengthy career in the military. She has no immediate family holding a military background, and she admits she had an ulterior motive when she joined Junior ROTC as a high school freshman.
“I joined to get out of gym. No one wants to do gym,” Sampson says. “I ended up liking ROTC and did it all four years.”
Sampson traces her interest in PTSD to her high school boyfriend, who returned from a tour in the Army with undiagnosed PTSD. She started majoring in psychology at Baylor University in fall 2012 and completed numerous research papers on PTSD. She also continued her military involvement with Army ROTC at Baylor.
With one year of college under her belt, she made the decision to leave college and join the Air Force Reserves, knowing she would one day return to higher education. On Jan. 9, 2014, Sampson graduated from Air Force Basic Military Training with honors, which she still considers one of her greatest achievements. She was one of six females to graduate with honors out of a graduating class of 600 graduates.
As a reservist, Sampson could hold a job outside the Air Force, so she chose to return to school full-time and changed her career path. Because of her time as a medic in the Reserves, she attended Lander University as a nursing major, but later transferred to Clemson in Spring 2017 to once again pursue a major in psychology and a minor in equine industry. Although the connection between psychology and equine therapy might not be obvious to some, she sees this connection as the key to a future career.
“Equine therapy helps veterans by promoting self-awareness and self-regulation since horses are able to pick up on slight behavioral differences people have when they interact,” Sampson says. “This can reveal to veterans the areas of their lives in which they may need more help or where the root problem actually lies.”
Sampson’s unique approach to addressing PTSD didn’t go unnoticed at Clemson. Sampson joined the Clemson University Student Veterans Association, serving as member, treasurer and eventually as its president.
Brennan Beck, Clemson’s assistant director of military and veteran engagement and Sampson’s advisor of the student organization, informed Sampson about the Military Family Research Institute Focus Forward Fellowship. The institute, which is housed at Purdue University, designed the fellowship to address stigmas and stereotypes women veterans often contend with while helping women student veterans build skills, leadership and a sense of community.
Through a detailed application process consisting of numerous essays, Sampson was selected to participate in the fellowship. She is the first Clemson student to receive this honor, and she was selected based on her military career and her interest in PTSD and its treatment.
“Upon learning of the fellowship, I immediately thought of Lizz, who was the president of Clemson’s student veterans association at the time,” Brennan says. “I was confident it would be an amazing opportunity for this young leader to develop her skills and knowledge while networking to not only improve herself, but to share what she has gained to invest in the other student veterans at Clemson University.”
Sampson says she was humbled by the selection.
“Being named a fellow meant that someone thought it was worth giving me a chance,” Sampson says. “They saw that I wanted to make a difference, and it means a lot that they believe that I’m capable of making that difference.”
The fellowship focuses on personal and professional development, and it allows fellows to communicate how they have uniquely served their country. During a four-day residency at Purdue, Sampson was matched with a personal mentor as well as placed in a group with four other veterans.
She engaged in team bonding activities and learned a great deal from her mentor. The experience connected Sampson with other successful women student veterans, and she realized how much their experiences aligned with her own.
“I came to Purdue with 19 strangers, but I left with 19 great friends,” Sampson says.
After completing the residency portion of the fellowship, Sampson has remained actively involved through the fellowship’s online community of web-based activities on Facebook. She is growing her professional development network and providing research tools for the institute and Purdue. Sampson has implemented some of the skills she has gained through the fellowship with Clemson’s student veterans association.
Sampson will be the first in her family to graduate college and plans to move to Alaska after graduating to be with her fiancé, who is currently serving in the Army. With graduation approaching, Sampson plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work. It’s a natural progression of the work she has already completed over the years, and she looks forward to working with a population she has grown to know well in both military and higher education.
“I wish to be a PTSD and traumatic brain injury counselor who also treats alcoholism and substance abuse among the veteran and military-connected populations,” Sampson says. “I plan to employ a holistic approach with the people I treat, whether that includes multiple forms of therapy or alternative treatments.”
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