Air Force reservist finds his life’s mission after Rowan University

Air Force reservist finds his life’s mission after Rowan University

Branden Griffin is about to complete his bachelor's degree in public health and wellness through the Rowan-Virtua School of Nursing & Health Professions.

At 25, Branden Griffin already has experienced a few different lives. The Air Force reservist is about to complete his bachelor’s degree in public health and wellness through the Rowan-Virtua School of Nursing & Health Professions

His sights are set on a career in public health data and analytics, where he hopes to make a measurable difference and reorient downward-trending health indicators.

But how he arrived at this moment is a story of grit, determination and beating the odds. 

Griffin grew up in a family of five in a tiny Texas community far from a grocery store. Families there lived paycheck to paycheck and most kids went looking for a job or headed to technical school after high school. 

“My family couldn’t afford to send me to school,” said Griffin, whose mother is a nurse and father is a mechanic and truck driver. “The only route I knew to get myself an education was to go into the military service.” 

The Air Force and its promise of blue skies offered a path up and out, except for one obstacle. At 18, he stood at 5-foot-10 and weighed 300 pounds, well above the weight limit for enlistment. 

Griffin had grown up on sugar, sweet tea and Dr. Pepper in an area where obesity, poor diets and tobacco use were common.

“It makes you think, ‘Why not? I’m just like everybody else. I’m overweight, but who isn’t?’”Griffin said. “It just repeats on itself.” 

One day, while making a video of himself, Griffin realized he could make a course correction and break his unhealthy habits. He quit drinking soda, monitored his calorie intake and ran countless miles, losing 120 pounds in a year and a half. 

After reaching his goal weight, Griffin secured a position in the Air Force Reserves as a boom operator at Joint Base McGuire Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He spent the next 18 months flying around the world, crammed inside a tiny capsule at the back of a plane, refueling fighter jets in mid-flight. The job required him to direct air traffic around the tanker aircraft and maintain the weight and balance calculations for the plane. 

Moving to South Jersey was a culture shock in itself. 

“Leaving Texas was so, so hard for me,” Griffin recalled. “I knew I was coming to an area that was completely foreign to me … I knew there was a high likelihood that I wasn’t going to come back.” 

In 2019, with enough active duty time beneath him, Griffin enrolled as a full-time student at Rowan University and soon switched his military job to become a health services administrator with the 514th AMDS, a reserve medical unit. The work exposed him to the health care field, while he pursued his bachelor’s degree at Rowan.   

Initially a nutrition major, Griffin decided to study public health after learning how policy changes could impact broad swaths of the population. At Rowan, he serves as a student government representative for the Rowan Public Health Club and works as a building manager for Rowan Campus Recreation, where he manages 200 student workers.  

One of his favorite professors, Stephanie Kneeshaw-Price, Ph.D., exposed Griffin to data analytics. He’s using those skills now as a business intelligence intern at a veteran-owned company called Pink Clover Data Solutions in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where he uses mathematical and analytical software to identify trends in veteran suicide. 

“I want to see and research and fix problems that occur in society—I want to fix health crises,” Griffin said. “A lot of areas don’t get recognized until the problem already gets bad. We saw that with COVID. We got punched in the mouth because we weren’t prepared for it and everyone had to react from that point.”

His passion for rural health thrills Kneeshaw-Price, who formerly worked for the New Jersey Department of Health. 

Rural health is an area of public health “that is still understaffed, underfunded and overlooked,” Kneeshaw-Price said. She called Griffin “truly exceptional,” a person whose work speaks more loudly than he does.  

“He could make real, substantial change to rural health, writ large,” Kneeshaw-Price said. 

Griffin wants to bring his best to his profession and goes “above and beyond” what’s required, noted Leslie Spencer, Ph.D., a professor of public health and wellness.

“We now have these big data sets about large populations of people,” Spencer said. “We can be much more effective in the interventions we offer by using these data to more clearly define and address these problems.”

When Griffin celebrates Commencement, his parents will be in attendance. It will be their first visit to New Jersey, where Griffin plans to stay after he completes his military service in June. 

“I’ve done a billion things,” Griffin said. “I’ve worked really hard to put myself in this position and they’re very, very proud of me.” 

Every spring, Rowan University highlights one graduating senior from each school and college. Read more stories about this year’s featured graduates