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As a military veteran, Joey Boswell ’18 found SUNY Potsdam later in life—a transformative decision that helped him transition from a tumultuous time in the U.S. Army.

Boswell arrived in Potsdam by way of Fort Drum. Although he loved his work as a chemical, biological, radiologic, and nuclear specialist attached to an explosive ordinance battalion at Fort Drum—where his unit was tasked with removing improvised explosive devices and working with robots—he was outcast by his unit once they discovered that he was gay.

“I told two people who I thought were my best friends, they then turned their back on me and told my whole unit that I was gay, and because of our cultural differences, they outcast me. That was hard. That put me in a really deep depression because I didn’t know what to do and how to fit back in with people,” he said.

He did everything he could to suppress his identity in the military up until that point. “It was during the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ phase and so I had to change everything about myself. I had to deepen my voice. I remember sitting in my barracks in basic training trying to deepen my voice and trying to walk a certain way. I would observe other heterosexual men and how they walked and how they talked and how they acted so that I could fit the mold and not be questioned and outcast. That was a really difficult time for me. I also saw openly gay men get beat up and I knew that I didn’t want that to happen to me at all. Therefore, I kind of suppressed all my artistic expression,” he said.

After a major car accident left Boswell with three bulging discs and three herniated discs, he was given the choice to join his unit in Kuwait or stay behind. Now shunned by his cohort, and concerned about his safety, he chose the latter. Because of his injury, he subsequently received an honorable medical discharge and set his sights on a brighter future. “Once I got out, that was a rough transition. I was confused. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Coming to SUNY Potsdam was a huge uplift for me, because I slowly started discovering who I was again as an artist,” Boswell recalled.

What he found at SUNY Potsdam was a welcoming community that helped him express himself creatively. Growing up in Texas, he had attended a performing arts high school where he was able to pursue dance and theatre. When he got to SUNY Potsdam, he was able to explore his creative interests once again. Although not his major, he became heavily involved in the Department of Theatre & Dance, where he performed in a number of concerts.

“The dance program at SUNY Potsdam really shaped my artistry and made me discover how much I love what I’m doing. Through those five years of transitioning out of the military, it was really hard to try to find my true self, not a fake persona that I put on. It has led me to my drag career, my dance career and to youth empowerment,” he said.

Boswell’s artistry and creativity extended to the local community where has he taught acrobatics, hip-hop and performance techniques in addition to judging cheerleading. He’s also a drag queen—performing locally for charity drag shows like a fundraiser for the Potsdam Humane Society.

“I really want to give back to our community. I feel like charity drag shows are a perfect way because we’re exposing our community to a different source of entertainment and we’re also educating them by trying to bridge the gap between the heterosexual and homosexual community,” he said.

He's also been heavily involved in the community through his role as the Reality Check Coordinator for the Seaway Valley Prevention Council—a position he accepted while still working on his undergraduate degree in community health at SUNY Potsdam. Through Reality Check, he has been working with 135 young people in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties to promote tobacco-free communities and educate students about the devious marketing tactics of tobacco companies.

“We go after the big tobacco companies, because they’re the ones that need to be held accountable. They are making products that are marketed towards kids, especially in convenience stores. They know that the youth are going to go in there to buy candy, chips, a drink and then when they pay for it at the cash register you have what we call the big power wall for the tobacco products. Those tobacco products are placed at eye level to where youth can see them to entice them more,” Bowell said.

During his weekly school visits, he helps empower students and gives them an opportunity to spearhead their own projects against big tobacco. He took eight students down to Richmond, Va., for a civil demonstration outside an Altria stakeholders meeting—the company that owns Phillip Morris—to tell them to stop targeting youth as part of their marketing campaign.

His position with Reality Check grew out of all of his work at SUNY Potsdam. “The Department of Public Health and Human Performance is amazing! I absolutely loved my decision to become a community health major, because it opens so many doors of opportunity for you,” Boswell said.

One of the most challenging and influential courses that he took as part of his major was “Program Planning,” with Dr. Janelle Jacobson. “Janelle is one of my idols in the Department of Public Health and Human Performance,” he said. “I look at her as a mentor because she has so much knowledge and experience.”

As part of his undergraduate work he also studied HIV and sexually transmitted infections and prevention. In his search to find ways to help people at risk for HIV, he researched different needle exchange programs that offer clean needles for drug users. “In my lifetime, eventually, I want to work with people that are facing addiction, especially with heroin or opioids, because I have a personal connection with it. My birth mom was addicted for about 29 years of her life. Unfortunately, she lost her life about three years ago due to her heroin addiction. When I was born I was addicted to methadone and heroin right out of the gate. I was in the ICU for about a month going through withdrawal,” Boswell recalled.

Right before graduating from SUNY Potsdam Boswell completed an internship at the Rose Hill Drug Addiction Treatment Center, an inpatient recovery center for people up to 21 years old. The internship opened up his eyes to the fact that many teenagers are trying substances from a young age. The internship helped him determine his next step—getting his master’s degree in social work to provide one-on-one counseling for youth struggling with drug addiction.

In a way, he has come full circle. Once struggling with his own identity and challenges, he is now determined to help and inspire young people and build healthier communities.

- Article and photos by Jason Hunter