Military Social Work Provides Abundance of Employment Opportunities for MSW Graduates

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Every day, men and women from every state choose to serve in the military ― each willing to put everything on the line to protect the freedom of Americans. This selfless act, coupled with the toll that service exacts from those who serve and their families, inspired Shanden Brutsch, Master of Social Work (MSW) student at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, to want to help in any way she could.

Brutsch’s father was an Army veteran, and later a member of law enforcement, who struggled throughout his adult life with severe symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She only realized how much he had been trying to normalize his symptoms after his sudden death in 2017.

“I decided if I could support a service member through the hard times to better ones, to improve their quality of life, that would be one way I could thank them,” Brutsch said. Today, she is one of several USC MSW students with an internship at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

A fulfilling career with many opportunities

“Many people, both veterans and civilians, build a fulfilling career in social work serving our nation’s veterans,” said Sara Kintzle, deputy director of the Military and Veterans Programs and associate research professor of social work at USC.

Social workers provide important assistance to service members, veterans and their families, Kintzle says, and opportunities abound for social workers to find fulfilling work in the field through the U.S. government as well as nonprofits serving people affiliated with the military. The VA is the largest employer of master’s prepared social workers in the nation with over 16,200 social workers assigned to all clinical programs across the system. Offering the largest social work trainee program in the nation, the VA provides training to over 1,500 MSW students annually.

Because of the unique nature of military service and deployment, people who have not served soon learn that working with veterans is different from working with other civilian groups. A first step is learning as much as possible about military service, the process of transitioning out of the military, and the many social, financial and psychological needs that veterans and their families may have. One way to do that is through the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Military Academic Center (MAC), part of its Military and Veterans Programs.

Effective training for a career helping veterans

USC’s early investment in a military social work specialization in 2009 has placed MAC among the top programs for preparing social workers to address the unique challenges faced by veterans and military families during and after service. The program was the first of its kind at a civilian research university and veterans comprise about 35 to 40 percent of its graduates.

The tools and knowledge gained through MAC are highly beneficial for civilians and veterans alike. “The program has taught me so much,” said Autumn Lauderdale-Mora, an Air Force veteran and MSW student currently doing outreach to veterans experiencing homelessness through her VA internship. “It has given me insight into others’ perspectives and I’ve learned so much about not just helping others, but also helping myself.”

Students in the social work school’s Military Academic Center join a community of student veterans and faculty with extensive backgrounds working with military and veteran students. Opportunities for learning extend beyond the classroom and include employment networking events, job readiness training, mentoring and referrals to nonacademic services. An expanding alumni network and related programming ― such as a newsletter, email listserv and professional development events ― ensure the learning continues after graduation.

The training that social work at USC offers dovetails well with additional opportunities within the VA itself. “An important way that a social work student can prepare for a job in the VA is to obtain as much direct practice experience as possible through social work trainee programs within the VA.  This will give them the experience they need to determine if a career in VA is the right career path,” said Jennifer Koget, acting national director of the VA’s Social Work, Fisher House & Family Hospitality and Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Programs.

“The best way to ensure a successful career in the VA is to have a commitment to the mission of the VA, which focuses on caring for veterans, their family members and caregivers,” Koget said.

Fellowship and fulfillment

The satisfaction of helping veterans and military families through work at the VA, or other organizations, is fulfilling for many. But there is another aspect of the work that MSW student Wilmer Rivas enjoys just as much: the camaraderie that comes from being with other veterans. Rivas, a former Marine, is currently interning at the Long Beach VA Medical Center where he works with veterans who have experienced a spinal cord injury or disorder.

“This internship has definitely helped me grow outside my comfort zone,” Rivas said. “Even though my interests lie mainly in mental health, it is important to recognize how difficult it is for someone’s mental health to improve if their basic needs are not met.”

For Johana Vega, MSW ’19, the desire to help veterans came out of her own struggles following her transition to civilian life. “When I got out of the Air Force back in 2002, I felt lost and I didn’t know about the various benefits available to me as a veteran,” Vega said. “It wasn’t until 2008 when I was unemployed, broke and struggling as a single mother that I attended an Employment Development Department (EDD) seminar and heard from a VA representative about the benefits I could tap into.”

Vega was hired by the VA in 2011 as a health coach and her supervisors there supported her in attaining her MSW at USC. “I always felt like there was so much more I could do for veterans,” she said. Her experience as a health coach and the knowledge gained through her MSW degree helped her transition to her current position as a clinical social worker in a VA substance use disorders clinic.

“I feel so fortunate to be able to continue to serve by helping my fellow veterans and really feel like I’m making a difference every day,” Vega said.

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