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I’ve always wanted to give back’: Newly graduated veterans reflect on Northeastern experiences

Max Spahn served four years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator in a rocket artillery battalion. After completing his service—which included a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan—he arrived at Northeastern in 2014, eager to pursue a career through which he could give back to his fellow student-veterans.

Not only was Spahn impressed with the university’s support network for student-veterans, he also saw his major—first behavioral neuroscience, but which later changed to psychology—as a means of furthering his goal. “I thought I’d do something in the research field to help veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries,” said Spahn, S’17.

But Spahn ultimately found his calling with Northeastern’s Center for the Advancement of Veterans and Servicemembers, where he was first hired as a work-study and then as an assistant to the director, Andy McCarty. He finished classes in December, and now works there full time as a veterans’ services specialist. His work has run the gamut, including helping students process benefits claims and access university resources. As he put it, “Anything a student-veteran might need.”

He is also founder and commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post, which in November became the first post to be opened in Massachusetts since 2009 and just the second in the nation to be run by student veterans on a college campus. The post focuses on connecting with veterans of post-9/11 conflicts.

Earlier this month, as Spahn sat in TD Garden in Boston at commencement, he listened to the speakers, waited to receive his degree, and reflected on his Northeastern experience. “I got emotional,” he recalled.

“I’ve always wanted to give back and help veterans in any way I could,” said Spahn, who served as president of Northeastern’s Student Veterans Organization and is now the group’s advisor. “I’m honored to be in this position to help student-veterans who’ve given so much. I wouldn’t be who I am without Northeastern.”

Co-op inspired student-veteran toward career in robotics

Spahn is one of a few Northeastern student-veterans who graduated this year. Also among them is Ben Beckvold, E’17, who served in the Navy for six years, working as a sonar technician maintaining the electronics systems aboard ships patrolling the Atlantic Ocean. Beckvold entered Northeastern out of high school, but took a break from college to join the Navy. After completing his service, he worked for a year as a contract technician for Lockheed Martin in Virginia then returned to Northeastern in 2013 to complete his degree.

Beckvold said he returned to campus with greater focus and discipline, thanks to his Navy experience, though it took him a semester or two to settle back into college life. But his passion for the outdoors pushed him to get involved with the Huskiers and Outdoors Club, and he enjoyed connecting with other student-veterans on campus. He even served as president of the Student Veterans Organization for a semester. “It felt just like hanging out with the guys on the ship,” he said.

Beckvold points to his co-op at Bluefin Robotics—which has since been bought by General Dynamics Mission Systems—in Quincy, Massachusetts, as a turning point in his Northeastern experience. He worked on electrical systems integration and firmware development for autonomous undersea robots. He’d long been interested in working on robotics, and he gained hands-on experience in new areas of engineering. “That helped me narrow my degree focus toward embedded programing and microcontrollers,” he said.

He finished his coursework in December and now works full time as a software engineer at Boston-based Piaggio Fast Forward. He is part of the startup’s development team, building embedded electronics for the company’s small cargo robot.

‘This is my way of giving back’

For another student-veteran, Brian Fountaine, there was a time when he questioned whether he’d be able to even attend college, much less attain a degree. The Army veteran suffered multiple concussions during his service and while deployed in Iraq in 2006 he lost his legs when an improvised explosive device hit the truck he was commanding.

Army veteran Brian Fountaine, AMD’17, sits with fellow graduates at commencement on May 5 at TD Garden in Boston. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

But after much perseverance, hard work, and support, there he was on May 5, receiving his bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Northeastern. “Just being able to stand up and walk in front of my peers and professors and walk across that stage was a pretty big moment,” said Fountaine, AMD’17. “It felt like a long chapter finally coming to a close with a good ending.”

Himself a double amputee, Fountaine has set his sights on helping others receive affordable prosthetics. Following the Boston Marathon bombings, Fountaine sought to comfort and converse with victims who, like him, had lost limbs. He realized from those conversations how expensive prosthetics can be.

In 2015, Fountaine received a Ford Foundation grant to purchase 3-D printers to print prosthetics using carbon fiber. His first project involved creating a prosthetic for a friend without an arm who couldn’t afford an adapter that would enable her to play violin. Recently, as a means of continuing to test the technology, he printed hockey skates for himself and tried them out at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, Massachusetts, the Boston Bruins practice facility.

As an undergraduate, Fountaine was hired as a summer intern last year at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where he created graphic illustrations and digital photography for research projects in the disease biophysics group. He has since been hired back full time as an artist-in-residence to continue that work, which still affords him time to pursue developing 3-D printed prosthetics for people in need.

“I’m not looking to get paid for this,” Fountaine said of his 3-D prosthetics work. “Doing this is honestly just fulfilling for me. I went through my own trials and tribulations, but I got through it—and received my private education for free (through the Post 9/11 GI Bill). This is my way of giving back.”

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