A salute to student-veterans

State of the University with Bob Caslen podcast — Episode 2

University President Bob Caslen and host Sally McKay have a conversation with Jared Evans, the university's director of military engagement and veteran affairs, and Ashley Johnson, a student-veteran in the College of Social Work.


Sally McKay: As the 29th president of the University of South Carolina, Bob Caslen, has a bold vision for the state's flagship institution of higher education, eight ambitious priorities in a new strategic plan, support the university's mission to transform the lives of people in South Carolina, the nation in the world. Now in his third semester, President Caslen is keeping his eye on the future of South Carolina as he continues to lead the university through a global pandemic. I'm Sally McKay, your host for State of the University with Bob Caslen, where every month we'll give you an exclusive look at the University of South Carolina from the perspective of the president. And we'll talk with special guests along the way. So let's get started. President Caslen, welcome to episode two.

President Bob Caslen: Thank you, Sally. It's great to be with you.

Sally McKay: Great to be with you, as always. Well, President Caslen, a lot has happened on campus in Columbia since our first episode aired in September, especially regarding the pandemic. I know that our positive COVID-19 cases have diminished. Our testing has expanded. What are your thoughts about our mitigation measures and just basically how we're doing?

President Bob Caslen: Well, first of all, I want to give a lot of credit to the faculty because they really had to make some major adjustments on how they deliver education while at the same time delivering to high standards and integrity. And they have responded. They've been involved in our planning. And I just am very grateful for their support. I want to give a lot of credit to the students. We're asking them to change their lives and their lifestyle and to come to a university where they're expecting a lot of engagement and close interaction with each other, and we're telling them to do just the opposite. So it's, it's kind of difficult, and they're responding. And not only they're responding, but even our student government with Issy Rushton has just been doing a great job from peer to peer encouraging, you know, like the I Pledge Columbia and all that sort of thing. So, but at the same time, you know, students are students. They like to go out there and be with each other and relax and let down their guard, and, you know, their COVID protection guards. And, and we'll respond to that and make the necessary corrections. But all in all, our students have been fantastic. And we're now, thank, thank the good Lord, we're in a manageable state and we intend to stay in that, in that direction and at the same time provide education to our students and a face to face resident model. And so I give a lot of credit to the team that's really put that together.

Sally McKay: Absolutely. We also had two very impressive guests come to campus last month. We had Ambassador Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and CDC director Robert Redfield. Tell us about those experiences.

President Bob Caslen: Well, we also had the Surgeon General. So I mean,

Sally McKay: That's right!

President Bob Caslen: Dr. Birx really said she thought it was fantastic how the university had used his own resources. And, for example, the Arnold School of Public Health coming up with incredible epidemiologists and scientific analysis and predictions of the virus, not only at our level, but at the national level. And the same college that come up with the environmental wastewater testing program that they put in place, which is really magnificent. You can really see what's really going on when you take those particular tests. Our School of Pharmacy came up with the saliva test at the time. There are only four universities in the nation that came up with the saliva test. What's great about the saliva test is their laboratories are able to determine the results the same day, and that's a game changer. So you don't have people that are waiting for a week for their test results, only to be have gone through the whole cycle of of the sickness. So that really has made a difference. And we have used our resources, and then we have passed those resources on to other universities, colleges throughout the state of South Carolina. As a flagship university, it's our responsibility to do that and we’re glad to do it.

Sally McKay: We are definitely living out what it means to be the state's flagship institution of higher education, and we will continue to to share these resources, as you have talked about many times. Well, President Caslen, I know that you've been telling students and faculty and staff a lot lately we have to finish the semester strong. Thanksgiving has been an important milestone that we have looked toward throughout the semester. Do you have additional words of wisdom to all of our audiences, maybe to some of the parents and the alumni, even, who are listening as we get closer to the end of the fall semester?

President Bob Caslen: You know, speaking of turning things upside down, the director of the CDC said something really revealing. When you stop and think about what he said, you know, normally when you go home for Thanksgiving, that's safe space. You're with family. You can be yourself. You can let your guard down and relax. But now that's not the case because the biggest spreaders of the virus are college-age kids across the nation. A lot of times they don't even know they have the virus or they're asymptomatic, they don't have symptoms. And then they go back into this so-called safe space where they have mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. And then you start getting into the more high-risk vulnerable groups, and they can easily spread the virus to family members unknowingly doing so. So we recognize that. So we're sending all of our 35,000 students home over Thanksgiving, is important that we do that. But we want to make sure that they're going home safe, that they want to know, even though they may be asymptomatic, if they do have the virus that we recognize, that we treat it ahead of time, and that they go home in a healthy manner, in a safe manner. So when mom and dad receive their son and daughter from the University South Carolina for Thanksgiving, they know that they're coming home safe.

Sally McKay: So important so that we do our part in, in protecting not just our campus, our populations, but the whole country when they go home. Well, President Caslen, you have been talking about excellence since you arrived at the University of South Carolina. It really is a bit of a mantra for you, whether we're navigating a pandemic or not. And part of your vision of excellence, we see it in the strategic plan and all the priorities and all of the work that you're leading, that accessibility and affordability for current and future South Carolina students is a key initiative. One population I know that you're focusing on is veterans and student veterans. And in honor of Veterans Day, we have with us today two special guests to talk about some of those initiatives and what it's like to be a student. Veteran Jared Evans is the director of military engagement and veteran initiatives at the University of South Carolina. He's also a Marine veteran. And Ashley Johnson is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina College of Social Work, and she is a Navy veteran. Jared and Ashley, welcome.

Jared Evans: Thank you for having us.

Ashley Johnson: Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here.

Sally McKay: Great, it's great to have you here. Ashley, you were a U.S. Navy nuclear machinist mate. Tell us what that is.

Ashley Johnson: So as a nuclear machinist mate, I worked on nuclear reactors. I was stationed on board an aircraft carrier, but our aircraft carriers and submarines are both nuclear ships. So I worked to maintain the water chemistry in the radiological controls to ensure the safety of the ship's crew, that they were not receiving radiation levels that were dangerous, and making sure that we didn't have to deal with corrosion or anything like that among the reactors.

Sally McKay: Wow. And President Caslen, you've already forgiven Ashley for being in the Navy, but it's a pretty impressive background that she brings.

President Bob Caslen: I know, she ought to be at our nuclear engineering program. You know, maybe she can teach it to our students.

Sally McKay: Well, you never know. But, Ashley, you've chosen social work as your graduate studies and pathway. Talk about that. You've said before that you have a real heart for people.

Ashley Johnson: I do. So through my service in the military and in the Navy, I really saw a gap in the quality of life that some of the service members were dealing with and the mental health side of things. And it really spoke to me, and I really have a heart for helping people. I always really kind of have. And I really wanted to be able to work with veterans and help them adjust back to civilian life after they leave the military. And also help active duty military understand that it's OK to get help, it's OK to reach out, that it's important, and what they're going through matters.

Sally McKay: Wow. It's, it's, that's a lot of heart indeed, and you got your undergraduate degree at Clemson. We'll forgive that, too. We'll forgive you for that as well.

President Bob Caslen: Not many more we're going to forgive (laughs).

Sally McKay: That's right. That's right. But you've been involved in a project called Upstate Warrior Solution, you're thinking about homelessness in the veteran population. Tell us some more about that.

Ashley Johnson: Yes, so I work as what we call a Warrior Advocate at Upstate Warrior Solution, and Upstate Warrior Solution is a nonprofit that helps veterans with almost anything in their lives. We deal with employment, housing, education, and we also offer recreational activities and family support. And so through that program, or through that employment, and through my association with the College of Social Work, I have been able to work with Secretary Grimsley's team and focus on veteran homelessness across the state. And we're really working to get that to a zero level where every homeless veteran has some place to lay their head at night so that we are getting them off the streets. And as we work on that and focus on the veterans side, we will also be able to develop the programs for the non-veterans and get more non-veterans off the street as well.

President Bob Caslen: So, you know, what's amazing about a veteran is there's, their act of selfless service because they'll stand in the gap to protect America from evil that's out there and what we value back home. So here's Ashley, a veteran, that's now standing in the gap on behalf of veterans for their mental health and for their homelessness and to be able to care for them. So this is a second act of selflessness that Ashley is doing, which is quite remarkable, actually.

Sally McKay: It's a life project. That's your life's way.

Ashley Johnson: It is. It is. And I really appreciate those kind of words. I really want to see every veteran treated the way they deserve for stepping up and making that oath to serve the country.

Sally McKay: Wow. That, you know, we talk a lot around the university, of course, about inspiring our students to be lifelong learners. And this is an example of a lifelong service and that you're really living out, Ashley.

Ashley Johnson: Yes,thank you. That was definitely why I joined the military because I wanted to serve my country, and education was also a huge part of that. I wanted to go to college, I knew I wanted to get an education, and it was a means to do that. But I learned during that, that service really spoke to my heart, and I really enjoyed that side of things.

Sally McKay: Wow.

Jared Evans: Well, I think that rings true for really a lot of the veteran community as well. And you hear a lot that the mission or the service doesn't end, it just changes. And I think that's true, and Ashley is a perfect example of that.

Sally McKay: A real evolution.

Jared Evans: Absolutely.

Sally McKay: Well, Jared, I mean, you certainly have your own experience and stories, you know, serving this country in the United States Marines, coming to the University of South Carolina as a student yourself just a few years ago and and now leading up veteran and military initiatives here at the university. And there's a lot going on. Will you tell us about the work you're doing?

Jared Evans: There is, yeah. So, you know, I'm a two-time alum with the university, came through as a student vet both times, once to get my undergrad, and then later when I was working in the athletic department, got my MBA. But yeah, there's been, I would say there's been significant growth from a university perspective in regards to an enhanced commitment to supporting and also attracting more veteran students. You know, really, when you go back just a couple of years, it's amazing how far we've come in a relatively short amount of time.

Last weekend we had our third-annual Veterans Day 5K, which again, all proceeds go to friends of Fisher House, and Dorn VA Medical Center here in Columbia has been slotted by the National Fisher House Foundation, for one. And if you don't know what that is, they, they provide free lodging and other services for family members of veterans who are getting long-term treatment and care at the Dorn V.A. Medical Center. And so, that was an incredible success. And then we also unveiled, on Veterans Day, a brand new 3,200-square-foot Veteran and Military Center of Excellence, which will be a game changer for the university and our veterans and military population in regards to the type of, kind of boutique centralized services, one-stop shop service delivery model that we will now be able to provide to our student population.

Sally McKay: And I know we've been talking about something like this for a long time now. Finally a reality. Ashley, when you hear that as a student, a new center finally realized to provide this kind of services for student veterans, what comes to your mind?

Ashley Johnson: I'm just so excited for it, to hear this. The veteran initiatives and the heart, the heart for veterans at the University of South Carolina is a huge reason I decided to get my masters from here. I'd actually met some of the student veterans at the Student Veterans of America National Conference, and we had really gotten to talking, and I really saw how much USC loves their veterans. And to have a center that's a one-stop shop for veterans where you can go in no matter what issue you're having and know that there's someone there that's going to understand and be able to speak to you is a priceless thing. It's just, it's going to be so valuable. And I think it's just going to continue to attract more veterans and really create a huge success rate with the veterans, with graduating and moving on to their careers.

Sally McKay: And President Caslen, I mean, the University of South Carolina does love its student veterans, and having this new center and I'm sure plenty of other initiatives that we're working on to try to attract more to come to school here, whether as undergrads or graduate students.

President Bob Caslen: Yeah, well, first of all, let me just say how much my wife and I enjoyed doing the 5K together.

Sally McKay: Oh, good.

President Bob Caslen: We're getting older, so we probably didn't meet the expectations of running the entire time.

Sally McKay: Should I confirm with her that she enjoyed it so much?

President Bob Caslen: Yeah. So, no, she's into walking, so she had no problem doing the 5K. Me, maybe, you know, all right, maybe another year or so. But the veteran center is great. It's not only great for veterans, but the way I look at it as a president is that, you know, when we went to an all-volunteer army 40 years ago, we created a gap between the majority of Americans and civilians with respect to the military and what the military does. You know, because prior to that, you had the draft and you had great integration between people that would come out of the society into the military and back. And the bridge between the military and society at large was bridged. Now we don't. But we really got to find ways to bridge the gap. We call it the civ-mil gap. And right here on this particular campus, for our students and even our faculty that I'm familiar with, the military and the sacrifices that the military does, to be able to have a place for veterans and for the and for veterans to engage with, with their, their classmates and with the faculty and the faculty to engage with them and to have a center to be able to facilitate that. That's really important, too. It's really important on this institution to be able to bridge that civ-mil gap and just to create pathways and lines of communication and open lines of communication between our faculty and our student body, and our, those who have sacrificed and served our country.

Sally McKay: Yes. And this new center is in the first floor of the Byrnes building on Sumter Street.

Jared Evans: It is, yeah, so, right there in the heart of campus.

Sally McKay: Wonderful.

Jared Evans: And when you really think about the veteran population and who they are and who they represent, you know, Ashley is a perfect example of that. But when they transition out of the service and they do decide to go to school, national data will tell you 80 percent of veterans, when they leave military service, attend a four-year public or private university. But when they make that transition, they excel academically, they increase diversity in minority representation, they do extremely well, when you look at postgraduate outcomes of job placement, professional development, and so they truly are a value add. And so there's a lot of, a lot of discussion around the narrative of who this population is, and I can't say enough, and I know everyone in this room agrees. And again, going back to Ashley, I mean, she's a 100 percent great representation of who that population is and how well they do. And then again, not only academically, but give back in the community. So that's really what I like to focus on. When you think about this population. It's a value add to the university.

Sally McKay: It's wonderful. And really, Ashley, Jared, just from your own experiences as student veterans and your current experience, Ashley, is there something you would want students who've never had military experience to understand about about what it's like to be the the student veteran and what that transition is like and how students who may not understand or have that background could, could be of service?

Ashley Johnson: I think my biggest takeaway for non-student veterans or non-veteran students would be to ask questions. If you're unsure or you're not sure how to approach a veteran or, you know, they have a different viewpoint than you, ask questions and engage in that extra learning and that dialogue with the veterans to learn what their experience, experiences are about. They have, tend to have a lot more life experience and a lot of diverse experience that a non-veteran is not going to ever get to experience. And so just by starting that conversation and opening that door, you can learn so much about the veteran population and how our needs and our abilities are different. So I would definitely that would be my one takeaway is just start a conversation.

Sally McKay: That's great advice, and I shouldn't say just students to be the ones asking. As a staff person here, I don't have a military background, and and my family does not also, although my dad spent a little bit of time in the Navy in his young years, but, so that's helpful. And that certainly will aid the transition.

Jared Evans: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's true for faculty, too. I mean, you mentioned staff, but I tell faculty all the time, the reality is, the student veteran that you're teaching probably has more in common with you because, you know, 50 percent of student vets come to school with families. They have, they're working a minimum of 35 hours a week. They probably have more in common with the faculty member and staff member in a lot of ways than maybe that true freshman or that 19, 20 year old sophomore. And so, not only is it true for students, but I would say faculty as well.

Ashley Johnson: Yes, I agree with that.

Sally McKay: Whole campus community.

Jared Evans: Yeah.

Sally McKay: Wow. And we can't let this this conversation go by without recognizing a major honor and award recently given to our Gamecock Battalion of the Navy ROTC program. President Caslen, this was a big Department of Defense recognition.

President Bob Caslen: The best ROTC program in the nation. Wow. You don't get better than that. That's right. The only problem was it was a Navy ROTC.

Sally McKay: He's not going to let you forget it, Ashley.

President Bob Caslen: But I mean, no, but seriously, when you stop and think about being the best in the nation, it's just absolutely incredible. That says a lot about them, says a lot about their leadership, it says a lot about their commitment as ROTC members, it says a lot about the program, says a lot about the institution, the university that supports them. And we're very proud, so we lit up Capstone for them, in honor of them. And that was well-deserved honor.

Sally McKay: That's right. When Capstone lights up, it's a big deal, right? And that's wonderful. Well, before we part ways here with Veterans Day and that important commemoration and celebration this week, may I just ask each of you to offer any thoughts, any reflections about Veterans Day, and what it means to you, and what you would offer to our our listeners?

Ashley Johnson: Absolutely. Veterans Day, to me, is really a time to reflect on my service and time to reflect specifically on the people I served with and the friendships that were built there and the relationships. It truly is a brotherhood. And I have not found that kind of relationship in any other service because you're forced into trials and tribulations with others. And so for me, I love Veterans Day because it is a time for me to reach out and follow up with someone that I might have lost touch with and see what they're doing and how they're doing.

Sally McKay: Jared?

Jared Evans: You know, to piggyback on what Ashley was saying, it's certainly a period of reflection. You know, when you serve a lot of times you're put in situations where you have to execute. There's no option. You have to. And so you learn a lot about yourself. You grow a lot. You're around people that you probably normally wouldn't associate with, and so, just that experience and being able to reflect on that is certainly something I always look forward to every year. And then also, for me, it's a time of celebration, and you think about all the great things that, you know, the veteran and military community do outside, outside of the uniform, in the community, at their jobs, on campuses. I've really, especially over the last several years with my work within the veteran community in the state and obviously with the University of South Carolina. It's really been a time of celebration that I've enjoyed sharing with those who I know continue to serve those who serve.

Sally McKay: President Caslen?

President Bob Caslen: Well, you know, 75 years ago, when the young generation of America stormed the beaches of Normandy and liberated Europe, they became the greatest generation. They came back to the United States, they were not looking for a handout, they knew that they had to work hard coming out of a Depression and a world war. And they actually went to work and rebuilt America. You know, so 20 years ago, not quite 20 years ago when the planes went in the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon, we knew that life as we knew it was going to change dramatically. And so with an all-volunteer military, these veterans, today's veterans, the new greatest generation, without being asked to do it, they just went ahead and decided that they want to serve their country. They want to stand in the gap between the evil that's out there and what our country stands for. And they don't necessarily want to be recognized for that. They just want the opportunity to be able to continue to serve or to be able to get their education and to go back and serve in their communities that they come from, just as Ashley is doing right now. And so, this is the new greatest generation. These are the men and women that, you know, we should acknowledge and recognize. And I'm just really glad that our institutions, our university is having a, has programs and, and a way to be able to recognize them and to serve them for in response to their service to America.

Sally McKay: Well, Ashley and Jared, President Caslen, Happy Veterans Day and thank you for your service, and thank you so much for being here today for this important conversation.

Jared Evans: Well, thank you for having us.

Ashley Johnson: Thank you so much.

President Bob Caslen: Thank you, Sally.

Sally McKay: Always great to be with you. President Caslen. And we got to get back to work, and you've got a lot to do as always. This has been State of the University with Bob Caslen, I'm Sally McKay, your host, saying bye for now.

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