Once homeless, alumnus finds a permanent home at Rider
Growing up in South Carolina during the era of segregation, Eugene Marsh ’13, ’18 never envisioned that he would someday go on to become a college graduate. “I thought my life was doomed because I was poor, black and uneducated,” he recalls of that time. “I didn’t think the world had anything to offer me, and I didn’t have anything to offer the world.”
Feeling that there were few opportunities available to him at home, he enlisted in the Army and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 2/17 Cavalry of the 101st Airborne Division as an infantryman and a radio operator. He was awarded three medals, including the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal.
After returning to the United States, Marsh had a difficult time re-acclimating to civilian life. “I came home from Vietnam as a proud soldier, with my medals and my spit-shined boots,” he says. “I felt like I had accomplished something, but the world did not respect me. I was unable to secure jobs, not only due to the fact that I was a Vietnam veteran, but also because I was African American, and racism was still a part of the Jim Crow south. I was homeless for about three years.”
He eventually found his footing and achieved success in the construction industry. In 1998 he started his own construction management company, whose signature project was the renovation of the Statue of Liberty.
Despite all his professional accomplishments, Marsh was always haunted by the fact that he had never gone to college. “I was raised in a foster home by a woman who could not read or write,” he says. “She was a proud woman of color and she was a spiritual woman, but she grew up at a time when she didn’t have the resources to go to school. However, that did not negate her ability to raise the children who were placed in her home. So I looked back on her life, and realizing that she did not have the ability to get her college education, I said, ‘I have no excuse.’ That was my reason for going to college.”
In 2005, when he was in his mid-50s, Marsh enrolled in Mercer County Community College, where he earned an associate's degree in architecture in 2010. He then graduated from Rider University in 2013 with a bachelor’s in liberal studies. The highlight of his undergraduate experience came when he was selected to deliver the commencement speech at his graduation ceremony.
While many people would have been content to stop there, Marsh next decided to pursue a master’s from Rider in clinical mental health counseling. He explains that his decision to go into counseling was motivated by his own struggles dating back to his time in Vietnam.
“There were things that were yearning within me that I couldn’t understand,” he says. “As a Vietnam vet I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he says. “PTSD wasn’t an acronym that we used at that time, it didn’t come about until the mid-1980s. But after I was diagnosed with PTSD in 1995, I began getting the counseling I needed to really connect with who I was and what I wanted to become.”
He says the Rider faculty also played a large role in encouraging him to enter the counseling profession. “They knew I was very outspoken about veterans and African American issues. There’s always been a part of me that’s given back to my community and wanted to help people. I didn’t know anything about mental health counseling other than the counseling I had received myself, but I thought, ‘Why can’t I help veterans who are experiencing similar things to what I experienced?’”
Initially, Marsh found the prospect of going to graduate school very intimidating. “I would ask myself, ‘Am I smart enough? Do I have the skill set to handle the academic requirements of writing and reading and research and comprehension?’ I didn’t have the confidence, but I knew that this was something I had to accomplish no matter what.”
He credits the support he received from his professors with helping him feel that he belonged. “The faculty made me feel comfortable. They cared. They engaged me and challenged me and came to know me as a person,” he says.
And for his part, Marsh worked tirelessly to give himself the best chance to succeed.
“I took advantage of every resource: the tutoring sessions, the writing labs, speaking with my professors about after-class assignments, spending extra hours working in the library — I did whatever I could. Rider became a second home to me because I was so determined to get an education.”
Since earning his master’s in 2018, a major focus of Marsh’s work has been treating veterans who suffer from moral injury, which he explains is internal conflict caused by doing something that goes against one’s own principles or beliefs.
“There are times in combat where an event may take place that goes against your values. For example, you may not be comfortable with an order you’ve been given by your commanding officer, or you may be involved in an incident where civilians are accidentally injured or killed,” he says. “At the time, we were just following orders, but then years later you say, ‘Wow, I did these things and now that I think about them, they were immoral. I shouldn’t have done that.’”
Marsh says that one of the ways for veterans find inner peace is through the act of seeking forgiveness. “We need to come to terms with what we did and the remorse we feel that has lingered throughout our lives.” Relating this to his own journey, he says, “I have sought forgiveness, both spiritual forgiveness as well as forgiveness to myself and from others who have come to know me. I’m not a perfect person by any means, but I hope that by sharing my imperfections, I can help in the healing of other veterans.”
Another goal of his is to promote the importance of mental health care for underserved populations. “African Americans are less interested in seeking mental health care than any other population,” he says. “There’s a stigma within the urban communities, so I’m trying to identify some of the issues that are affecting people of color and raise awareness about the benefits of counseling.”
At 69, Marsh shows no signs of slowing down. He’s in the process of writing a book about his life, which he hopes to have completed later in 2019, and he is also applying to graduate schools so he can pursue a doctorate in counseling.
Reflecting on all that he has accomplished, Marsh hopes his journey can serve as an inspiration for others. “I want to help people fulfill their dreams and look beyond the barriers that may be preventing them from accomplishing their goals,” he says. “If I can do it, anybody can do it.”