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Army Veteran Overcomes Homelessness, Near-Death Fall To Earn MC’s Highest Honor

Glen Swanson politely greeted the two uniformed officers who knocked on the door of the small Germantown apartment he shared with his father. He had been expecting them, but he did not know when. He was alone the afternoon sheriffs delivered the eviction notice. Swanson and his father were homeless.

“I’ve had some hard times, sure,” says Swanson, flashing a confident smile and sporting an athletic build beneath a golf shirt. Now twenty-six and a newly minted Montgomery College graduate, Swanson adds, “But mostly, I’ve just been lucky. Now I have to finish what I started.”

Swanson, who will attend the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland this fall, earned a 4.0 grade point average, Phi Theta Kappa honor society induction, and the Germantown Campus’s Board of Trustees Scholar award. He believes his life is very different than that of a traditional student.

Down—and Out

Claude Swanson (left), Glen Swanson (right)

Months before the eviction, at the height of the recession, Swanson’s father lost his job. The two lived on food stamps while making ends meet on unemployment checks and what little money Swanson made on a summer job. Swanson’s father, a single parent, had no other resources. “I knew it [the eviction] was coming and we didn’t have a car,” Glen says. Mature beyond his then-fifteen years, Swanson borrowed shopping carts, filled them with what few belongings they had, and pushed them to a nearby storage unit. “I used money I made at the summer job to rent the unit,” he says.

Bouncing from hotel to hotel with assistance from county social services, Swanson spent his junior and senior years of high school sporadically attending Northwest High School. As he describes, being a homeless teenager carries physical and social implications that go beyond lacking shelter.

At the time, Swanson’s lone extracurricular activity was JROTC. His family’s military history, coupled with the prospect of someday providing a stable income, motivated him. He excelled on the drill and rifle teams. However, the uniform required constant dry cleaning. “We didn’t have a washer and dryer,” he says. “My clothes were dirty—and they smelled. I was not going to go to school like that.” He quit JROTC, but refused to give up on high school.

After social services placed the two in Section 8 housing, Swanson made it to school often enough to graduate with a 2.2 grade point average. The apartment, he says, added a little more stability to his life.

Mounting a Comeback at Montgomery College

Given his financial woes and lack of transportation, Swanson says college was not on his radar. But he recalled Montgomery College was a positive factor in his dad’s life. He also knew MC students got a free Ride-On pass.

Basic Training, Fort Sill, Oklahoma

Since transportation was not an excuse, Swanson decided it was time to “prove himself.” He received Pell Grant benefits, but only registered for 12 credits at the College. The leftover money provided income for him and his father. Unless necessary, Swanson would not buy the books for a class.

He became a fixture in the Germantown Campus Library. “We didn’t have internet or cable. What else was I going to do at home? I didn’t have a laptop,” he says. “I did my projects here, I wrote my papers here, and I studied here.”

Earning a 4.0 GPA his first year, Swanson not only found his footing at MC, but also rekindled his dream of joining the Army. However, his weight—252 pounds on a five-foot-nine frame—impeded his enlistment.

“When you’re a family living on food stamps and making food stretch over the course of a month, you’re not buying salad and fresh fruits,” he says. “I took health classes at MC to learn about my body and to get in shape,” he says. Going to the gym became part of his daily routine. After losing 71 pounds, he enlisted in the Army on September 16, 2011.

Moving Onward—and Upward in the Army

After basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Swanson reported to Fort Lee in Virginia for Paralegal Specialist Advanced Individual Training (AIT). “It was nice to have a bed, to have structure, and to have food,” he says of basic training. “I finally had a purpose.”

Glen Swanson, (center), Schofield Barracks, Hawaii

At Fort Lee, he finished first in his AIT class, which integrated rigorous physical training scores with paralegal class grades. His confidence soared. His dad was there when he graduated from AIT and received the first-in-class honor.

The honors continued while Swanson served in the 25th Infantry Division in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He earned three Army Commendation Medals. Blending his love of rucking (weighted backpacking) with his academic prowess, he won the Army’s Pacific Paralegal Warrior Challenge, a competition for paralegal specialists. With a promotion to sergeant and a new girlfriend, Victoria, Swanson’s life and Army career appeared to be settling into place.

Suffering a Long, Hard Fall

In 2015, Swanson fell 40 feet from a cliff while hiking in Hawaii. He missed a step, he says, scaling a lava rock wall overlooking a scenic beach. Airlifted to a hospital, Swanson suffered a fractured vertebrae and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). With Victoria by his side, he medically retired from the Army at age 24.

Though he battled serious medical issues, Swanson’s unfailing duty to family brought him and Victoria, now his fiancé, back to the county—and Montgomery College. While he helped his father recover from some medical setbacks, he enrolled in business courses. He even helped his father reenroll in classes with money he earned in the Army.

Rising to the Occasion, Again

Glen Swanson (center), receiving the first-in-class honor

While at MC on his “second tour,” he met Hanna Weiser, a professor who helped him find a pathway to graduation and transfer. “What is most impressive about Glen is how he manages obstacles with grace, facing them head on,” says Weiser, the coordinator of business and law at MC. “Many students at MC are faced with challenges throughout their academic career… it’s important they overcome them to be successful in their education.”

Despite suffering the TBI, Swanson achieved academic success. Last spring, he applied and received acceptance to the University of Maryland. One afternoon, while studying for a test and waiting for Victoria, who is completing a STEM degree at the College, Swanson found out he won the Board of Trustees Scholar award, which came with a $2,500 bonus. He believes the award helped him earn acceptance to Maryland’s Smith School of Business. Though he will be moving on to double major in business and kinesiology, Swanson says Montgomery College will never be far from his thoughts.

“MC was the starting point—and a starting over point. It was a way for me to be doing something positive and moving forward, striving to reach a goal. I’m almost there,” he says.

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