A teacher’s enthusiasm and Jell-O. Asa Briggs knew he wanted to go to Clemson thanks to both Marcella Massey, his first-grade teacher and avid Clemson graduate, and the jiggly snack.
“One day, we had Clemson-Carolina day,” he remembers. “They had garnet Jell-O, and then they had orange Jell-O. The pairing of my teacher being from Clemson University and the orange Jell-O — I was completely sold.”
Briggs is an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, a position he took recently after serving as the program director of rural psychiatric services at Prisma Health, where he implemented contextualized models of psychiatric health care in the state’s rural areas — a challenge he was familiar with, having grown up in Enoree, South Carolina, a rural community in Spartanburg County.
“Enoree is the place that birthed me. But Clemson University is the house that built me,” says Briggs, “to borrow words from Miranda Lambert.”
As a young man, Briggs says he too often saw African American men in the carceral system. “The gravity of it was not lost on me in my teenage years,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to be a public defender.’”
Briggs earned his undergraduate degree from Clemson in political science and then delayed his law school enrollment to take a fellowship with Impact Movement in Nashville, where he worked with college students on spiritual development and leadership skills. After a meeting with a first-generation college student who spoke of his trauma and depression, Briggs had a revelation.
“I realized that if I waited until individuals got into the carceral system, it would be too late,” he says. “I began to understand some of the social determinants that were impacting people’s lives: food insecurity, poverty, transportation issues, interruptions of the family system and dynamics. I needed to swim a little bit further upstream, which meant that I was going to be changing my career.”
After earning master’s and doctoral degrees in psychiatric nursing from Vanderbilt and Yale, respectively, he became the director of psychiatry for the department of corrections at one of the largest federally qualified health care centers in Washington, D.C. It was a full-circle moment: “The men that I had envisioned helping in my teenage years were sitting across from me with a sundry of mental health issues that had not been addressed for many, many years, which was driving them into criminal activity. It was the hardest seven years of my life, but it was the best job I ever had.”
Though Briggs’ career has taken him to different parts of the country, Clemson has never been too far away. He’s joined Clemson Clubs, served on the Black Alumni Council, participated in the Men of Color Summit and was recently named to the Alumni Association’s board of directors, where he’s working to enhance the Clemson experience for students and fellow alumni, specifically concerning diversity and inclusion.
“I want to be that voice on the board that brings up issues that are specific to the minority community that the larger community may not be thinking about,” Briggs says, “and doing it in a way that reflects my love for the University. The common thread in that room is a love for the University, and that is something that I want to preserve for generations to come.
“That’s a beautiful thing.”