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Going Above & Beyond: MSW Student Prepares to Aid U.S. Veteran Care Crisis

Jocelyn Parker

Authored by: Alina Ladyzhensky

Photography by: Provided

Student Life


Mental health care and housing precarity are foremost among the issues faced by American military veterans— a population which, as of the 2018 census, includes 18.2 million people. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans are twice as likely to die by suicide than civilians, with an average of 20 veteran deaths by this cause each day, nationwide. Recent studies link this ongoing crisis to a sufficient lack of mental health care access for veterans.

Meanwhile, as further research indicates, the veteran population is particularly to vulnerable to homelessness. A study conducted by the VA National Center on Homelessness among Veterans reveals that U.S. veterans are “overrepresented among the homeless in the United States and are at greater risk than nonveterans of becoming homeless.”

For aspiring social work professionals like Jocelyn Parker, a 2019 Master of Social Work (MSW) candidate at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), daunting data such as this only reinforces the positive impact of her chosen career path. Parker is enrolled in the Cohen Veterans Network Scholars program at SP2, which provides stipends for graduate students pursuing careers in support of veterans’ mental health. The highly competitive program prepares selected second-year MSW students to provide services to veterans and their families who are experiencing mental health challenges.

“I decided to apply for the MSW graduate program at SP2 because I have been interested in mental health, especially in the military and veteran community, for quite some time,” Parker explained. “SP2’s specialization in military social work was a main reason I chose the program. My undergraduate background in psychology, sociology, and business has given me a unique perspective that complements social work considerably. SP2 provided a great opportunity to gain more knowledge and experience with the military and veteran community prior to beginning my career.”

“During my time in the program, I have learned, in class and at field [placement], about the various challenges faced by the military/veteran community, as well as their strengths,” Parker continued, citing courses such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Substance Use Interventions, Social Work Practice and Trauma, and Advanced Mental Health Practice with U.S. Veterans as helping to readily prepare her for a career in military social work.

During her first-year field placement, Parker worked at the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Philadelphia, assisting veterans who were, or at-risk of, experiencing homelessness through their Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. This year, her placement is in the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, which provides health care services to veterans in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. Through this placement, Parker has gained exposure to various facets of veteran care, having worked at the Center’s mental health clinic, hematology/oncology clinic, and community living center respectively.

Parker’s ultimate goal is to continue working with the military community, particularly in areas of mental health and re-entry to civilian life. She plans to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and direct commission as an officer in the military, so that she can utilize her social work skills to assist other service members. But for now, as she nears the finish line of her MSW studies, Parker is not without reflection about all that she has learned— including some memorable words of wisdom from an Associate Professor at SP2.

“The overall educational experience created by the faculty and students stands out to me,” Parker said of her time in the program. “I remember my first day of the Foundations course, and Dr. Malitta Engstrom stating, ‘I don’t want you to be good social workers. I want you to be exemplar social workers.’ I have not only gained the knowledge to succeed in the field, but I have been inspired by professors and peers to go above and beyond for clients.”