Marine Corps veteran's path to earn social work degree took many turns

Kevin Brown-Kaufman, fall 2022, outstanding graduate, social work, ASU

Kevin Brown-Kaufman, fall 2022 Outstanding Graduate in the School of Social Work in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Photo by Marion Tsosie/Used by permission.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

After living through what he calls a “rough upbringing” that involved moving in and out of several states, a teenaged Kevin Brown-Kaufman decided to fast-track his enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps by dropping out mid-year of the 11th grade to complete his high school requirements more quickly in night school.

However, the Phoenix native, then living in Salt Lake City, became a young father in 1997. He put aside his educational goals and childhood dream of becoming a U.S. Marine to start working and remain in his daughter’s life. Working in floor coverings eventually paid quite well and lasted a decade. But Brown-Kaufman still harbored his childhood dream, and after the loss of his father roughly one month prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he wanted to go to Iraq with U.S. forces to fight in the war there. 

With the requirement of finishing high school to enlist still present, he could have done what many students often do — get a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Instead, he realized he really wanted to graduate from high school. In June 2004, Brown-Kaufman finally earned his diploma. Six months later, he raised his right hand and swore the Oath of Enlistment.

Such a step is harder and takes longer. But Brown-Kaufman, the fall 2022 Outstanding Graduate of the School of Social Work, held fast to his decision.

“It was just my attitude, that I would not join with a GED, being firm on my feet and meaning what I said,” said Brown-Kaufman, who earned his bachelor’s degree in social work. “I understood how powerful all of us are if we really believe in ourselves.”

He honorably served in the Marine Corps under active and reserve duty status from 2005 to 2019. He earned an associate degree in fall 2019 and entered ASU in summer 2020.

Today, his daughter is 25 and an ASU alum. He saw her get up every day for school, which motivated him to do the same, and say to himself, “I got this.”

Now Brown-Kaufman’s looking ahead to serving others by “being the voice” for them.

“In a lot of those situations and lifestyles, we get stuck and think that’s all we have. But if we change our mindset and stop blaming ourselves, stop blaming our parents or our upbringing and do it ourselves, we can do what we say we’ll do.”

Read on to learn more about Brown-Kaufman’s journey before and during his time at ASU.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: It came to me sometime during 2014 to 2015, while at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Administration Medical Center in Phoenix. A social worker mentioned that she and a few colleagues had been talking about me and suggested I investigate what social workers do. After doing my research it seemed apparent, minus the degree, that I had been roughly doing social work my entire life. It was not until I made the Dean’s List that I realized that social work was the field I would major in. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Something I learned while at ASU that surprised and changed my perspective on life is the realization that whether I was in a Zoom room, or in-person classroom, no matter an individual’s age, life experience, gender, religious background, civilian, military veteran, etc., we can learn from young minds fresh out of high school, and from each other.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU for a few reasons. It is a veteran-friendly campus (e.g., Veterans Upward Bound and Pat Tillman Veterans Center). They accepted most, if not all, of my transferring credits. Access to the university provided by public transit made traveling easier. Finally, I was already a resident of Maricopa County.

Q:  Which professor(s) taught you the most important lessons while at ASU?  

A: From my first class with Professor Melissa Mitscher (SWU 295, 303, 340) she kept her Zoom classes (online during the pandemic) fun yet challenging. She remained approachable, informative and extremely passionate about the skill of professional writing and social work. I personally valued Professor Tahnee Baker’s style of teaching as being very understandable. There was a pandemic going on and all of us were experiencing life like none of us had up until that point. I also respect what she has rightfully earned. She said, “Please call me Dr. Baker. I have worked hard for that title.”

I valued Professor Alison England’s (SWU 311, 312, 458) respect for her profession, how open she is to her class about her family, and her support for military service. I was absolutely honored to have Professor Cara Kelly as my instructor for Statistics of Social Work (SWU 321), while Professor Brandie Reiner (SWU 182, 320) promptly graded papers and left detailed feedback on assignments.

I value Professor Lilly Perez-Freerks (SWU 410) because she is passionate about her culture, background, and profession. She was always willing to listen to her students express tough times. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice that I would give to those who are still in school is to engage with their instructing professors and to always ask the questions lingering inside of their heads. It forces the student and professor to think on their toes. It also sends the message that they are present and, in the classroom, and/or Zoom room. I would also add that they put down their phone and close their laptop if it does not pertain to what is being taught at that moment. Stay present, it matters. 

Q: As an on-campus student, what was your favorite spot to study, meet friends or to just think about life?

A: My ASU journey started during the pandemic; however, when the doors finally opened, and we were allowed to attend in-person and on-campus classes my favorite spot to study was inside of my mind by way of meditation. If I was not at home to do so, then my favorite place was in one of the study rooms located upstairs in the south end of the Watts College UCENT (University Center) building.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: To keep striving forward by making my today better than my yesterday. By staying true to my goals, and hitting the mark, I will be keeping my promise to myself. Thus, aligning and achieving my future aspirations one at a time.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: First, I would thank the individual and express my gratitude. Second, I would request in writing that the $40 million was in fact “given” to me (tax reasons!). Third, knowing that the said amount simply is not enough, I would look to invest half of it to double or triple the amount. Finally, I would work with those currently in the field  — individuals and companies — to aid in the issues revolving around poverty — veteran, national and global.

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