Purdue is friendly territory for veterans. Meet the Marine who made it happen.
December 20, 2011
When Bryan Morris was a U.S. Marine Corps squad leader in Iraq five years ago, the possibility of graduating from college was nowhere on his mental radar.
Yet after two Iraq tours and a four-year stint, he opted, with urging from his wife, to take advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. He wound up at Purdue University.
On Sunday, Morris will become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
Not only that, he'll offer the student response for the afternoon commencement.
And he will leave behind a support network he bolstered for future veterans enrolling at Purdue.
"Frankly, Bryan has been a driver to make Purdue more vet-friendly. We are very friendly. But there is always more that can be done," said Dave Hankins, a senior project manager at Purdue Homeland Security Institute and an adviser for the campus student veterans organization.
"He has worked to create a student group that can support those guys, find out 'who is like me?' and help them navigate the system, supplying them the support they need, but not just them, for their spouses, too.
"Bryan has kind of set the table like that. He has been a good champion for their needs. He has been a sounding board, and in one sense, the face of the Purdue student veterans."
Morris, of Greenwood, S.C., will receive a bachelor's degree in construction management Sunday at Elliott Hall of Music and soon after will start his job at Integra Construction in Atlanta.
Faculty and staff who have met Morris are quick to point out his soft-spoken leadership, ability to show other students a larger perspective on life, and a willingness to "get his hands dirty" and help others.
But if you ask Morris, 26, what he has done for Purdue veterans, the answer is never just about himself.
"I don't like to toot my horn," he said this week while he and wife, Caitlyn, were preparing to pack up their Lafayette home. "But recently, it really kind of hit me -- we've made some strides to take this organization to a new level."
A big adjustment
A few years ago, the Purdue Student Veteran Organization had about 20 students and little recognition on campus.
Then Morris and another student vet, Dylan Meadows, set out to change that. The group now has more than 100 members, regular events and meetings. More than 400 students on the West Lafayette campus receive GI benefits.
"I had a really great mentor, a professor who was a vet. That really helped me," Morris said. "I just thought, why can't everyone have that? You have that bond of sharing the same thing, whether you are male or female."
Next fall, incoming student vets will.
Hankins said Morris' idea is a mentoring program supported by about 60 Purdue staff and faculty vets who will be paired with students vets. It is a program that Hankins said will help nontraditional students adjust to campus life.
"They have been away from the classroom and have been exposed to responsibilities that the average 18-year-old is not," Hankins, a retired Air Force colonel, explained. "They've been defending their county, being shot at, seeing their buddies get hurt and missing home. And now they are here to get an education."
Now, more than ever, Morris hopes that program can help the U.S. troops withdrawing from Iraq this month who may, as he did, wind up at Purdue.
"Purdue has a window to capture and recruit vets," he said. "We have to make the university as friendly as possible. Once the wars are over, those who want to come back to school will."
On Sunday, Morris will be the first student from his program, building construction management, to give the student response during commencement.
"It is a huge honor," he said.
For department head Robert Cox, it is no surprise, calling Morris one of the most memorable students in his 20 years of teaching.
Cox said his "ah-hah" moment with the veteran came last spring as he prepared a small group of students for a study abroad trip to Saudi Arabia.
"(Morris) said on numerous occasions how much he loved the people of the Middle East and how he was excited to get back over there and see them again," Cox said. "This came from a Marine who spent several years of his life in harm's way through two tours of duty, only to find the silver lining and respect for the people he encountered."
Morris and wife are looking forward to the next chapter in their lives. For the student veterans whose next chapter is college, Morris advises they not leave their military lessons behind.
"Remember where you came from. Remember what it gave you," he said. "And reach out to other vets."
- ERIC WEDDLE
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