A Life of Service for a Veteran, Social Worker

Brian Anderson, a former Green Beret will use his degree from the School of Social Work to help other veterans cope with life post-deployment.

Caroline Harting
May 14, 2020

Brian Anderson, a 2020 graduate of the Columbia School of Social Work and CEO of the non-profit Veteran Alternative, endured trauma while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq. When he returned home that experience led him to try different types of therapy to help him cope.

Anderson recently talked to Columbia News about his plans to use his education to help other soldiers to better manage their mental health.

Q: You didn’t go to the School of Social Work right after college. What did you do before coming to Columbia?

A: I joined the military after 9/11. It was 2003 when I went through basic training and made it to my first unit. My first deployment was to Iraq. And while I was there, I worked with a group of Green Berets from 5th Special Forces Group. I absolutely adored their leadership qualities and wanted to have those same qualities myself. When I left Iraq and came back to the States, after about two years going through a qualification process, I became a Green Beret.

Q: What led you to social work after being in the military?

A: On September 29, 2010, two of my teammates were killed in action. That same day, I received a book in the mail from my mom. An introduction to social work that I read in two days. I felt like it was my calling to become a social worker.

Q: Why did you choose Columbia’s School of Social Work for your graduate studies?

A:  I wanted to do social work on a management and entrepreneurial level, and I found that Columbia had the online Social Enterprise Administration program. It was the only school I wanted to go to. And that's the way Columbia is. It's your first choice. To be quite frank, it was my only choice. I didn’t think that I would be accepted. When I was growing up, my mother and father did not have a college education. My mother got her college and master's degrees later in life, when she was in her 40s and 50s. When I received that acceptance letter with the confetti falling down, it was just really amazing.

Q: This has been a memorable year for everyone. What stands out to you about your experience at Columbia?

A: The Social Enterprise Administration program is an online program. Last semester, some of us from the program saw a couple of classes that were offered on campus that were not offered in ours. We wanted to take those classes, so we reached out to our leadership at the School of Social Work. The instruction and the administration teams worked with us to make sure we got to take those classes and that we got everything we needed from our learning environment.

I'm super thankful that Columbia had the ability to adapt to students’ needs, before and during the COVID-19 crisis.

Q: How are you going to virtually celebrate this year’s Commencement?

A:  I actually purchased my regalia, my cap and gown, and I'm working on a speech to be able to present because I think it's important to honor this day, even if we are the class of COVID 2020. What I'm really excited about is seeing all the students, my peers and myself, that we're able to push through the number of obstacles that we faced and the time of physical distancing. I think this class is second to none because of what they were able to overcome. I'm going to celebrate by telling a story of how great Columbia was for me. I'm going to be wearing that cap and gown. I'm going to do a speech, at least for the family and friends and all those who supported me during this time. They've really made it easy for me. And that's phenomenal.

Q: What’s next?

A:  After I received my bachelor’s degree in social work in 2014, I founded a non-profit, Veterans Alternative, because of the difficulties I went through post-combat and I found some therapies that really helped me. We decided to make these therapies, like yoga, equine therapy and memory visualization techniques, available at no cost to veterans in our community. We’ve found a lot of success with them. I started the nonprofit with a lot of passion, but as we started to grow, I realized I needed to gain more skill sets to keep the organization successful. I needed to be a better leader, and Columbia has helped me become one.