74-year-old veteran earns doctorate, aims to help others who served

Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 12:36 AM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - He served his country as a military member during the Vietnam War and beyond and oversaw the education of thousands of children as a school principal. Still, for Col. Clarence Becknell, there is no end to learning.

On a recent day, he was on the campus of Xavier University of Louisiana. It is familiar territory for Becknell.

“During the Vietnam War, when we came back home, everything was anti-military,” said Becknell.

He said after returning from the war, Xavier’s then-President Norman Francis, who led the university for nearly 50 years, was open to having Vietnam vets matriculate at the historically black school.

“Dr. Francis was the one that really gave the veterans a break in this area because he opened the doors to Xavier,” said Becknell. “I came here to Xavier, there was a program that was called the Career Opportunities Program that the federal government had offered to colleges and universities for Vietnam.”

A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their...
A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their country

In 1975, Becknell earned a bachelor’s degree from Xavier in early childhood education. And not long after he earned a master’s degree from Loyola University and then another master’s from Xavier. All the while, continuing his military service as a national guardsman.

“The military taught me how to be disciplined and I tell every young man that’s coming out of high school because it happened to me. I was drafted and one thing about the military, they will discipline you, teach you how to discipline yourself,” said Becknell.

That training continues to serve Becknell. In his seventh decade of life, he embarked on a journey considered too daunting by much younger people. “I’d worked on it prior to that but getting deployed with the military I had to kind of give it up years ago.”

Becknell says he began to work on his doctorate in the 1990s at another university but only completed a semester because he was deployed due to the Gulf War.

But his yearning for the degree didn’t die; he says a few years ago it intensified. “After I retired, you know, just sitting at home and all of a sudden TV comes on, you know, get a degree here, Walden University, Syracuse University and all that,” said Becknell.

The signs, he said, kept coming.

“It just hit me, you know, I understand how these guys say I got that calling. I got the calling to do this. And God was with me all the way,” said Becknell.

So three ago, as a retiree from the New Orleans Public Schools System and the military, Becknell applied to Xavier’s Educational Leadership Program.

Ramona Jean-Perkins, Ph.D., is the program’s coordinator. She was asked about her first reaction when Becknell applied to the program.

“It was why because being aware of the fact that he had two careers behind him I couldn’t imagine what was next in the magic ball? And he said simply it’s something that he always wanted to do, no personal self-aggrandizements, no what people would say ego in it,” she said.

And 40-plus years after Becknell received his undergraduate degree from Xavier, he was again a student—this time working on a doctorate.

“He met those requirements, so, yes, he had the GPA, yes he had leadership experience. We look for that coming into the program,” said Perkins.

FOX 8 asked Becknell if he had any second thoughts once he learned he had been accepted into the doctoral program.

Actually, to be honest, I did, I did, I really did. I said, do you really want to do this and at first I said, no, I don’t, I didn’t want to do this but then it came back, you know, something saying, it was a calling for me to do this,” he said.

Pursuing a doctorate is no small challenge.

“It’s very rigorous, there’s a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and quite a bit of research,” said Perkins. “When you start a doctoral program it’s total doctoral program, it’s your life.”

Becknell confronted the hours of study and research like a military mission.

“Failure is no, that’s not in your lifeline or in your mind, everything is about achievement,” he said.

As Becknell’s adviser, Perkins said Becknell was not cut any slack.

“And we made no allowances when I tell you that. We made no allowances. No deadlines and believe it or not, most times colonel had completed any of his assignments before anyone else turned it in,” she said.

Nicole Moliere was in Becknell’s class.

“We would collaborate on projects, we would do peer-review of each other and so Col. Becknell was always open to grow,” she said.

At 52, she said she welcomed his presence and was not surprised that he decided to pursue a doctorate at this stage of his life.

“I kid with people all the time, I was really glad that Col. Becknell was there because if he hadn’t been there I would have been the oldest person in class, so he sort of took the heat off of me. But no, I wasn’t surprised because when you’re a lifelong learner, I mean why stop? Your age doesn’t matter,” said Moliere.

After a 40-year military career, Becknell’s 100-plus page dissertation focused on military vets. The title is “A SACRIFICE FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND A COMMITMENT TO THEIR COMMUNITY: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL STUDY OF VETERANS TRANSITIONING FROM SOLDIER TO STUDENT”.

A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their...
A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their country

Becknell says his own work with other veterans highlighted are

“I worked with some young veterans throughout, with the Buffalo Soldiers and some things we’ve done before, and one of the things that I found out that a lot of our young veterans that are coming out the military they’re lost,” he said.

In early May, Becknell defended his dissertation before a panel of academicians.

“My conclusion was that universities, my recommendation was that they get with local universities, with the VA and have someone from the VA, Veterans Administration to come on the campus and to train staff about veterans,” he said.

He said he never contemplated giving up despite the demanding curriculum.

“No, no, never came to my mind at all, no, no. I had some stumbling blocks and all I did was put it down and said a prayer,” said Becknell. “If you think that you can’t do it you won’t do it, you just have to have faith.”

And on May 27, 2023, at the age of 74, Becknell received his doctorate in educational leadership. “It feels great. The challenge is over,” he said shortly after the ceremony.

Timothy Glaude, Ph.D., was one of Becknell’s professors.

“Part of what we have in our division of education, we have a number of I would say older students, and those students are the ones who are the more dedicated, more committed to the task and he came in with that attitude,” he said.

Becknell plans to put his doctorate to use for veterans. “You know universities are having a problem adjusting to them and then they’re having a problem adjusting to the universities but the two have to work together and I think that I can be of assistance with these younger veterans that’s going to help them,” he said. And Becknell dedicated his dissertation to Dr. Francis, Audrey Oger Jean, and Dr. Perkins, the daughter of Mrs. Jean as well as veterans.

A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their...
A military vet in his 70s earns his doctorate with a goal of helping others who served their country

“I dedicated this to Dr. Francis, he gave the veterans a break,” said Becknell. “If it had not been for him giving us that opportunity I wouldn’t be here today.”

And about Mrs. Jean he said, “Ms. Jean was my mentor at Phillips Elementary because I was a probationary teacher and that’s where I learned the mechanics of teaching from her because I had to observe her every, at least twice a week for a whole year.”

Having Perkins as his adviser was a full-circle experience for Becknell. He said she helped him and other veterans when they arrived at Xavier years ago.

“Dr. Perkins was a student here at the time that we were here as veterans and she worked with the veterans because Dr. Francis felt that they needed some type of academic assistance for the veterans because we had been out of school for a while,” said Becknell.

And Becknell has this advice for others who long to get a degree but feel it is too late.

“Never too late, it’s never too late. Age is only a number,” he said.

He said he is working on another project but did not want to give specifics.

Becknell is also historian-emeritus for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club which parades on Mardi Gras.

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