Bringing Veterans to Schools
of Social Work
By Sue Coyle, MSW
For years, veterans have been recognized as worthy and in need of the highest quality social work services. After all, few if any return from deployment unchanged. Many are affected by trauma, posttraumatic stress, and other impacts of combat and war. When they return, they are faced with the difficult task of transitioning home.
“There’s a dance that family members have with veterans when they return,” says Michael G. Rank, PhD, a clinical associate professor of the Virtual Academic Center at the University of Southern California (USC) Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Veterans have been a part of the military culture and now they come back into the family culture. There’s a clash of cultures,” Rank says.
“The military experience changes your life forever. It reshapes your personality. When you lump upon that the combat experience—that changes you even more,” he says.
With that in mind, schools of social work throughout the country have begun incorporating curricula specific to veterans, active service members, and the family members of both into their programs.
At USC, three electives—soon to be four—are offered, creating a military social work concentration. The courses include Clinical Practice With Service Members and Veterans, Clinical Practice With Military-Affiliated Families, and Introduction to Military Culture. “If you’re going to train individuals to do military social work, they’d better understand the culture,” Rank says, referring not only to the jargon but also to the ranks, branches, jobs within, and more.
At New York University (NYU) Silver School of Social Work, the entire array of required Master of Social Work (MSW) courses has been enhanced with information and resources concerning veterans and the military service environment. “We felt that there was a real gap,” says Peggy Morton, MSW, DSW, assistant dean of field learning and community partnership and a clinical associate professor at the Silver School. “There was nothing in the general curriculum about veterans in the past. This year the associate dean put some articles into the general class syllabi, so all classes would have some reading on veterans. This spring, we’re offering a full three-credit course on working with military families.”
James I. Martin, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs and the director of the MSW program at the Silver School adds, “In addition to enhancing the curriculum of required courses, we are offering a new elective on Clinical Social Work With Military Service Members and Veterans, as well as an introductory elective on veterans, military service members, and their families.”
But that’s not where it ends. Veterans are not just a population to be served and subsequently taught about. They are a population that can and will serve as social workers. Thus, the same schools incorporating military social work are also attempting to include an increased number of veterans among their students. That means not only recruiting but also offering resources—financial and otherwise—that will encourage and allow for veterans-as-students success.
Vets as Social Workers
There are many reasons why veterans can and do make excellent social workers—for one, the shared experience. “Most veteran students request to work with veterans,” Morton says. “They feel they understand the situations [faced within] the veteran population. We don’t discourage it. Many students want to work with clients they identify with.”
Additionally, veterans have, through their time in the military, developed a skill set valuable to the field. “Veterans come with a subset of leadership skills that make them very desirable,” says Susan Bryant, MSSW, director of student recruitment and student affairs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Social Work. “Many of them have been involved in leadership in the military. They have specific skills that help them to work with other people, to set goals, strategize, and take a solid inventory of what they have and don’t have,” she explains.
Rank, who is a veteran, adds that veterans also have a unique drive. “Veterans have a service orientation, and that’s really important. All veterans have served; all veterans are mission driven,” he continues. “When we come out, we are looking for something with substance. When you talk about social work, you get this real-life experience that’s mixed with being mission driven.”
Rank also notes that veterans are generally self-motivated; prompt; collaborative; loyal to the team, the organization, and the clients; and dedicated.
Furthermore, “They understand and appreciate the value of higher education. That is one of the things across the board that veterans bring. They’re not time-wasters. They’re on it,” Rank says.
One of the most vital ways, then, to get veterans into the social work classroom (the first step toward the field) is financial assistance. While veterans—and, in some cases under Transfer of Entitlement, family members of veterans—are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, that earned reward does not consistently cover all desired schooling.
“Some have funding through the GI Bill, but some will have used up their funding through their undergraduate degree,” explains Robert W. Sommo, assistant dean of enrollment services at the Silver School. “We have the opportunity to increase their awards in incremental ways. It’s a really nice way to show appreciation for them.”
The Silver School is currently a part of the Schultz Veteran Fellowship program, which aims to recruit and enroll veterans into the school of social work, as well as assist all social work students in becoming knowledgeable about military social work and work with veterans and community members to increase best practice. As a part of the program, the school hosts quarterly best-practice meetings, cultivates the aforementioned curriculum, and supports applicable field placements.
Academic institutions, including the schools of social work at USC, NYU, and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, are also embracing the Yellow Ribbon Program, which enables schools to offer additional financial assistance to veterans eligible for the GI Bill but whose tuition has exceeded those benefits.
“The Yellow Ribbon Program provides [assistance] each year and it’s matched,” Rank says of USC’s program. “There are at least 10 other scholarship programs available to veterans. I think that’s why we have so many veterans. Every veteran who comes into the school of social work gets some kind of financial support from USC. We provide financial assistance to every veteran who asks for it.”
At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “Any veteran who says they want to relocate to Tennessee can [attend] for in-state tuition,” Bryant says.
“For our DSW program,” she continues, “anyone who is living in Tennessee or the surrounding states—anyone in the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market—their GI Bill, which offers in-state tuition, will pay for our program. They can participate online for free.” The Academic Common Market consists of 15 states ranging from Texas through Delaware.
Additional financial assistance programs vary by school. Information can be sought via the admissions/enrollment offices and representatives. Sommo, for example, states that much of the recruitment information they have discusses funding and the avenues veterans can take to earn what they need financially to attend.
“It’s not just funding,” Sommo notes. “[Veterans need to look at] what the school has to offer them, the academic offerings and other aspects that bring veterans into the school.”
Fortunately, schools of social work are focusing on that, as well, working to be welcoming to veterans both as students and community members. At USC, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families houses the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative. “All of the veterans within the community are organized and serviced by the collaborative. It’s a focal point for providing for the needs of [the population],” Rank says. He also notes that significant and consistent research is done there.
USC also has student organizations as well as the Veterans Resource Center.
At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, “We have, on campus, a veterans’ support unit where all of our veterans can go,” Bryant says. “They have support groups. We offer services for students that need extra help. And we have me. I do some supportive work with veterans from time to time; I’m available if they need help.”
Perhaps the most important resource a school can offer, however, are the professors. It’s important, Bryant, Morton, and Rank agree, that the professors be knowledgeable and welcoming to incoming veteran students—as they would be with the entire cohort.
Additionally, most veterans are nontraditional students with unique life experiences. Rank encourages professors to embrace that reality. “Tap into that experience,” he advises. “It can lead to really rich discussions in the classroom.”
But, he notes, the most important thing to do as a professor with students who are veterans is “Treat veterans like anyone else. Respect their diverse, informed opinion,” he says. “Yeah, we are different, but we’re different just like everybody else is different.”
— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.