Military service members have all the makings to be great college students – they are typically disciplined and know how to get the job done. Still, transitioning to an academic environment can be challenging as service members adjust to civilian life. Five staff members from the San Francisco VA Health Care System have teamed up with four local community colleges to help student veterans as they make their way back to the classroom.
Launched in 2010, the Student Veteran Health Program (SVHP) is an innovative outreach program that provides easy access to mental health and social work services directly to Veterans enrolled at four local community colleges – City College of San Francisco, Skyline College, College of the Redwoods and Napa Valley College. Licensed therapists Bridget Leach, Kathleen Mink, Forest Harpham, Andrea Vanderlugt and psychiatrist Ellen Herbst are located on-campus and offer Veterans a wide variety of services, including assistance with enrolling into VA health care, scheduling medical appointments, transitioning to civilian life, and providing emotional support and psychological counseling. The program, primarily through the leadership of licensed clinician Brandina Jersky, also provides outreach and enrollment services, as well as speaker series events, to an additional number of Bay Area schools.
“We want to make the VA accessible and responsive to Veterans, so that they will come to us for their healthcare needs,” said Keith Armstrong, director and founder of the Student Veteran Health Program and a social worker at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. “Student Veterans tend to be older, more mature and have less time to dilly-dally, so if we can go to where they are, we break down the barriers to healthcare.”
Although Veterans have the potential to be successful in an educational environment, many Veterans report difficulty meeting their academic goals. Military cultural differences, as well as psychological and physical issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, pain and traumatic brain injury, may contribute to a Veteran’s difficulty in adjusting to college. Student Veterans may feel uncomfortable talking about these issues, or may not even recognize the issues facing them. SVHP staff find that by being accessible to student Veterans, they may be able to address these deeper, more serious issues facing the Veterans. For instance, a student Veteran may initially come in to inquire about educational benefits, but in the process, may speak with a staff member about VA health care and mention that he or she is having difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Staff might then be able to explore the cause of the student Veteran’s condition, suggest some options for addressing it and ultimately even provide a one-time psycho-educational intervention or ongoing counseling.
“I like being the first experience that people have with the VA,” said Leach, who assists Veterans at City College of San Francisco. “By helping folks navigate the system, we help demystify the VA. If you give someone a positive experience, they are much more likely to come back and talk to you about more serious subjects, such as mental health issues.”
Since its inception, over 3,000 Veterans have utilized VA services, and more than 1,200 have enrolled in San Francisco VA Health Care services. Alex Avila, of South San Francisco, recently met with Leach at City College to check on his VA educational benefits and ended up enrolling in VA health care and making an appointment with a VA primary care provider. The former Army sergeant, who served five years and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, plans to complete his general education courses at City College and then transfer into San Francisco State University’s nursing program.
“When I left the Army, I didn’t know what (benefits) I had and what I didn’t,” said Avila. “(The Student Veteran Health Program) makes everything so much easier and less stressful. I feel like I’m being cared for.”
The program also provides a speaker series to both Veterans and faculty and staff on many Bay Area campuses. Topics may include managing stress, dealing with pain, and overcoming sleep problems. These informational sessions provide an opportunity to educate veterans on topics that they may not otherwise reach out to staff about. Additionally, SVHP staff presentations to college faculty and staff can help them learn about the challenges faced by Veterans, allowing them to better support Veterans’ academic needs and help them overcome barriers to success.
“I try to be someone who they can trust, someone who listens to what they say and values them,” said Mink, who assists Veterans at Skyline College in San Bruno and at City College of San Francisco. “They know I’m there if they need me.”
To learn more about the Student Veteran Health Program, go to: https://www.sanfrancisco.va.gov/services/Student_Veteran_Health_Program.asp
About the author: Sherri Eng is the director of public affairs of the Francisco VA Health Care System.