PENDLETON --- Over the past 12 years, 29-year-old Navy veteran Amanda Nicks engaged in extensive military training and earned two years of university credits prior to enlisting, but Monday, at Tri-County Technical College' summer commencement, she will receive her first degree at the first graduation ceremony she has attended.

But it won't be the last, said the Central resident, who is transferring to Clemson University this fall, where she will pursue a bachelor's degree and later a master's degree in architecture.

"This is a big deal for me," said Nicks, who was home schooled by her mother in Michigan, so she didn't attend a high school graduation and spent two years at Bopb Jones University studying interior design before dropping out to re-evaluate her life and career choices.

A year after being honorably discharged from the Navy, she decided to go back to college to prepare for her dream - architecture.  "I thought I was just taking associate in science classes at Tri-County to prepare to transfer to Clemson but Stacey Frank, a psychology instructor and advisor for Tri-County's Student Veterans Association chapter, is the one who helped me figure out I could graduate with a degree. She pulled up my schedule in DegreeWorks and said you have to take two classes and you can graduate with a degree."

Although Nicks didn't take the traditional educational route, "I'm glad I went this road, it gave me life experiences I never would have gotten otherwise, networking opportunities and friends all over the country."  She cherishes the camaraderie because "I'm not close to my family so my fellow veterans are important to me; they are my family. I'm grateful for Stacey; she is a friend for life and a fellow veteran, but most important, she is like family." 

"I am so proud of Amanda for this accomplishment in her life. She worked really hard and earned this degree. I will be at her graduation to cheer her on.  I also will be there to support her through her journey at Clemson and beyond," said Frank.

The two met in Patriots Place, a veterans center that opened in November 2013 on Tri-County's Pendleton Campus. Located in Anderson Hall, it serves as a one-stop shop for enrollment processes, resources and a place to study, hang out and talk. 

"Patriots Place has been very important to me," said Nicks, who served as president of the Student Veterans Association chapter.  "It's hard for veterans to assimilate into civilian life. We speak a different language and we see the world from a different perspective.  At Tri-County, we share the same mindset, we're the same age, and we look out for each other. We know how to help each other if someone is having a bad day.  Patriot's Place is our refuge," said Nicks, who was a work study in the center.

"When I left the military, I felt like I left my family but here at Tri-County, I again have my brothers and sisters, although in a different and new environment, all having each other's back as we navigate our new mission of college. It's not our biological families but they are equally as important," said Nicks, who left Michigan at age 17 to attend Bob Jones University.  She wasn't happy, so she left to test the waters in the working world as a carpenter helping to build homes in The Cliffs in Greenville.  Her next job was as a waitress.  "I realized I was going nowhere fast unless I made some drastic changes," she said. She enlisted in the military and calls it "the best decision I ever made."

"In addition to maturing, I gained a lot of experience and I got to travel." She entered the military as an E3 because of her university credits and started out in Norfolk, VA, and later worked as a Master at Arms and dispatcher for fire and rescue in Chesapeake, Virginia.  "It was there I learned to multi-task and to think on my feet," she said.  She also manned the front desk for the commanding officer.  After a stint in the Bahamas, she was promoted to an E-5 and accepted an assignment in Jacksonville, Florida, where she worked as a master at arms (military police) for the K-9 unit. 

In 2014 her contract was up, and at the same time, budget cuts hit the military and she decided not to re-enlist. 

She had lived in the Upstate during college and since Clemson was her goal, she moved to Central.

"I knew I wasn't ready academically so I entered Tri-County for transfer classes.  She applied to Clemson but they wanted to see a full-time student record so she took a full load while managing a full-time job as a range safety officer for Sharp Shooters Gun Range in Greenville.  She was accepted to Clemson the next semester.

"I want to have a family and go to college and pursue my dream of architecture," she said. Thanks to the military, her Tri-County tuition was paid for and she will graduate debt free.  She bought her own home through a VA home loan and she has reunited with her younger brother and sister.

Nicks says she plans to enter the ROTC program at Clemson and with two years of service, along with her prior military service, she could enter as a commissioned officer and continue serving as a reserve officer while working as an architect.