by Claudia Bustamante

As the wife of a disabled veteran, Krystal Lerner knows first-hand the struggles many veterans face and the impact that can have on those closest to them.

Lerner remembers the frustration she personally experienced going through the Veterans Affairs system trying to get her husband connected with services.

“I made three pages worth of phone calls to people, and everyone kept referring me to someone else,” she said.

Lerner had the time to devote to helping her husband, but the experience made her think about others who might not have the same support systems. “There are so many barriers that would make this whole process frustrating,” she said.

Hoping to use some of her personal perspective to help others, Lerner is pursuing a Master of Social Work from the USC School of Social Work, with a Families and Children concentration and a sub-concentration in Military Social Work and Veteran Services.

The USC School of Social Work is the first private research university to develop a military social work program that aims to graduate students who are prepared to meet the unique needs of active duty service members, veterans and their families.

Social work is one of the fastest-growing careers in the nation, and the field offers diverse opportunities. This was a fact unknown to Lerner, who originally only considered Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) graduate programs.

“I really didn’t know much about the MSW degree,” said Lerner, who researched jobs in clinical therapy work and found many also considered applicants with MSWs. “The MSW just seems much more flexible.”

Plus, the USC MSW program allowed her to get specialized education working with military populations.

Not only is the school dedicated to increasing the ranks of behavioral health providers who understand military culture, but it also hopes to make an MSW an attractive option to former service members and military spouses who already understand the unique challenges of deployments and transitions home and are more apt to build rapport with these vulnerable populations. To that end, the school’s Yellow Ribbon scholarship program helps provide resources for veterans and military spouses, like Lerner, who are pursuing a higher education.

The scholarship recipient plans to use her personal experience to help military families. “I want to be able to link arms with them,” said Lerner, who would like to pursue job opportunities working on bases with families, especially new parents.

An unexpected consequence of Lerner’s experience is that her time in the program encouraged her husband Brian Lerner, who served in the Marine Corps, to also pursue an MSW. Both are in the same military culture course at the San Diego Academic Center and both hope to graduate in May.

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