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Feature: Mat Garrison

Updated: May 8, 2019

Mat Garrison, College of Charleston Veteran Liaison

The first time I spoke to Mathew Garrison (not a typo), over the phone, I was exploring my options as to which college I would be attending following my military retirement. As the military liaison director for the College of Charleston (CofC), Mat’s enthusiasm made it apparent he had a genuine interest in my making a smooth transition to college life, but also, demonstrated his experience in working with military veterans, their common concerns and the “tripping hazards” they run into when taking on their higher educational goals. His professionalism and expertise were impressive, and those qualities played a key role in my decision to ultimately attend CofC.

So, what makes Mat so passionate about the work he does? Is he naturally a personable guy, or is it just “all part of the job? “ And…why is he so committed to the CofC veteran community? The answers to those questions are precisely why I chose to feature him on my website. Because his story sheds light on a person who’s a multifaceted, multilayered individual with a wide range of experiences that eventually culminated in a greater contribution to a community.

Mat recognized early on that he had a desire to make a difference in the lives of people. Which is what motivated him to complete a degree in history education and become a high school teacher in the city of Chicago. After a few years, however, he would eventually realize that he also longed to explore the world. So, when an opportunity presented itself to complete his master's degree overseas, Mat took advantage and made the journey to Ireland. He enjoyed it so much, his original two-year stint was extended to four years, he continued his education, and ultimately earned his Ph.D. And apparently, became quite the rugby player, along the way.

In 2008, now Dr. Garrison returned to Chicago and attempted to get back into teaching. Unfortunately, the recession was in full swing, and he found it very difficult to find reliable employment. For a short time he took up a position as a part time Physical Education teacher, his undergraduate minor, but that wouldn’t last longer than a few weeks. He applied to fire and police academy’s, but with no luck, because a hiring “freeze” prevented these services from taking on new candidates. Mat would eventually find himself unemployed for a considerable time. A period Mat describes as, “not fun,” but I think we could all guess, there were probably some other choice words he would have rather used to describe his ordeal.

After a year, or so, of struggling to make ends meet, Dr. Garrison would manage to find a position with a recruitment firm responsible for working with college and professional athletes throughout the country. Here, Mat was able to hone his interpersonal skills by communicating with various organizations, schools, and clients to earn the kind of money that would provide the financial security many people could only dream of. But…there was something missing, and after some soul searching, Dr. Garrison would come to realize he really wanted to get back to making a difference in the lives of students pursuing their higher education. And, full disclosure, to get out of Chicago because, he and his new wife, Briane, had had enough of the harsh winters. But where to go? Charleston, South Carolina, had been a place Mat had visited many times over the years to visit friends and such, so, in 2012, they decided to give it a shot, and made the move.

At first, Garrison would continue to work for the Chicago recruitment firm remotely but would eventually answer a job advertisement to the College of Charleston. There he would become part of a team of people hired to assist Transfer Students from the local technical school to “bridge” their credits to CofC. It would be in this capacity that Dr. Garrison would learn something significant, and somewhat upsetting, about the kind of services available to military veterans transitioning from active duty into the college experience. What he learned was that there were no services, points of contact, or persons with any knowledge as to how to interpret the military experience credits earned by service members during their active duty commitments. After realizing this fact, Mat would immerse himself into the student veteran community, so to find ways to support their needs and streamline their transitions to the college environment. His ambition to help vets achieve their educational goals came from a place of personal familiarity.

As a commissioned officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard, Mat was knowledgeable of the difficulties military veterans face when transitioning to civilian life. However, Mat has firsthand knowledge of the stress and anxiety a freshly discharged military veteran could experience when facing the unfamiliar environment that is college life. He knows this because his own father, Jim, encountered that very predicament.

In 1968, after a tour in Vietnam, and while serving on a Navy ship on Marine Detachment Duty, Jim Garrison sustained a serious injury to his hand. The injury was severe enough that it resulted in his being medically discharged from the Marine Corps and he was left wondering what his next step should be. Jim’s wife, Mary Jane, convinced him, in somewhat stern fashion, to take advantage of his Montgomery G.I. Bill, and go back to school. Begrudgingly, at first, Jim enrolled into San Mateo Junior College, and as it turned out, was quite the good student. He would eventually transfer to California State University, Chico, complete a master’s program in education, then go on to accomplish a successful career as a school teacher.

Jim Garrison, Marine Corps recruit. (1961)

Fast forward to today. In a program that Mat Garrison started from the ground up on his own personal time, off the clock, and sometimes, at his own expense; has now evolved into a fully functional Student Veterans Organization that provides the necessary support unique to its community. And now, under the title of Veteran/Military/ROTC/Research and Liaison Director, Mat has created an avenue to not only provide assistance to the existing veteran community on campus, but also add to it through recruiting and outreach. Not only to prior service veterans, but active duty military, as well. Additionally, his organization creates informational opportunities for campus faculty to learn more about the veteran students attending their courses. Furthermore, his office, also, recognizes prior service faculty and encourages them to help raise awareness among their colleagues.

In a nutshell, Dr. Garrison’s wide range of personal experiences, from his time as a high school teacher, to his time overseas, his experiences during the recession, and a recruiter in Chicago, to his personal familiarity with veteran transitions in college life as witnessed through his own father’s reluctance and success, have all played a part in his own success as a student veteran liaison and advocate. Personally, all I could think to say now is how grateful I am for people like Mat Garrison, and his passion for making a difference in the lives of others. It was his personal choice to take on the task of providing assistance to the CofC vets, and that choice has been the difference in many of those same vets fulfilling their goals and graduating with degrees.

Mat’s definitely one of the good guys, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for he and his family.

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