After a 22-year career in the U.S. Army, UVM student veteran Michelle Caver (’19) is transitioning to a career in social work. “When I decided to retire from military service it was the realization that I wanted to support the military community in ways that were not possible as a soldier,” she says. “I wanted to have an opportunity to address systemic issues that impact military readiness.”
Michelle believes that her perspective as a veteran can be helpful in identifying and integrating effective strategies to eliminating many of the distractions that adversely impact members of the armed forces and their family members. “Despite the vast amount of knowledge gained through military service, I knew that I needed a formal education to support my desire to figure out ways to improve the lives of my brothers and sisters who are serving or once served in the military.”
Transition to Social Work
Initially, Michelle was unsure about her ability to return to the classroom and feel comfortable enough to do well academically. But UVM’s Continuing and Distance Education (CDE) program helped her believe that she could meet the challenge of going back to school. With plenty of encouragement from her family, friends and UVM staff – including Vika Pleshakova, her CDE student advisor, and David Carlson, coordinator of Student Veteran Services at UVM – the uncertainty began to fade away.
At first, she wanted to pursue a degree in psychology. “My friend and mentor, Leah Wittenberg, noticed that I spoke a lot about the need to change social injustices. It took a bit of encouragement, but I am grateful she convinced me it was at least worth it to talk with Susan Roche, the interim chairperson for the Social Work Department,” she recalls. “Halfway through our initial meeting, I knew that I was in the right place. Sometimes, we are fortunate to cross paths with exceptional people who want to help others to thrive.”
Dr. Roche has a vivid recollection of that first meeting with Michelle. “She exuded enthusiasm and interest in everything surrounding her,” says Roche. “Michelle gave as much as she received during our conversation.” Their 45-minute appointment quickly became 90 minutes. “By the time she left, we both knew she had become a social work major, even before she had completed the necessary procedures.”
From the beginning, Michelle was amazed by the faculty and staff in the Social Work program. “The sincerity about the importance of the strengths perspective is evident with each faculty and staff encounter,” she says. “Even the space in the Social Work Department feels more inviting than any other space on campus.”
Connections with her fellow students have also been eye-opening. “Being quite a bit older, I am frequently humbled by their thoughtfulness and points of view about the world. To be honest, I don’t recall having the same level of insight when I was 20-years-old.”
During her first semester in the BSW (Bachelor of Social Work) program, Michelle completed a service learning placement at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP). This was her first interaction with refugees, and she was excited about the opportunity.
“My service learning supervisor at VRRP, Htun Sein, was exceptional regarding making me feel like a team member and ensuring that I experienced opportunities to support refugees in the office and out in our community,” she recalls. “He even allowed another student and me to join him in welcoming a family from Myanmar. We wanted to make the family’s arrival to their new home special and decided to combine favorite foods of Vermont with some foods and spices from their homeland. To feel their appreciation was better than any words we would have exchanged if we shared the same language.”
Involvement with Veteran Organizations
Currently, Michelle serves as the president of the Student Veterans Organization at UVM. “Our mission is to connect with communities on and off campus in support of the veteran community,” she explains. To support the mission, student veterans aim to build relationships with community members who have not served in the armed forces.
“Michelle is one of the most tenacious, caring, thoughtful, and most of all hard-working veterans who have ever led the Student Veterans Organization,” says Carlson. “Time after time I am ‘wowed’ by her leadership, organization, and humility.”
Recently, the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) at UVM invited Michelle to join their advisory group. “I am extremely excited about the opportunity to volunteer with this organization and join their efforts to end homelessness in the veteran community.”
She is also a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW). “I’m currently receiving mentorship from Marty Martinez, a Vietnam Veteran and State Veterans Homeless Chair of the VFW in Vermont. His advocacy for those returning home to Vermont from Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in a new housing facility – the Canal Street Veterans Housing – managed by COTS (Committee on Temporary Shelter),” she explains. Recently Marty selected Michelle to assist with his work to support veterans who are without a home or in jeopardy of losing housing. “I’m honored that Marty believes I can continue the work he has been committed to for quite some time.”
Another exciting opportunity is coming up soon, when Michelle participates in Outings Leader Training in support of the Sierra Club Military Outdoors program. “After training, I hope to be able to offer veterans and their family members various opportunities to build or restore connections with each other, as well as community partners, through exploring the wonders of the outdoors,” she says.
Having firsthand experiences with people in other countries helped Michelle to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures. While deployed to Kuwait and Iraq from 2004-2005, she made many connections with the local citizens and with international workers from Asia.
“While reflecting on my interactions and observations, I recognized my privilege not previously noticed,” she says. “I saw the people – who happen to be born in places with less opportunity – in me, and I in them. That kind of truth is humbling, so I feel most fortunate when humility returns to remind me of what is a genuine concern. Sometimes I can pay attention to and place emphasis on some petty things. I’ll keep working on this shortcoming. Thinking about those who seek the support from the social work community will hopefully keep me humble.”
Inspiration and Hidden Truths
Faculty members in the Social Work program continue to inspire and challenge Michelle’s thinking. “If you visit Fiona Patterson’s office and take a close look at the many books that fill the office shelves, you will likely find a story about a person you’ve never heard about before. Fiona’s students are fortunate to read the stories she selects to illuminate some of the many hidden truths in world history.”
Dr. Roche, who is Michelle’s advisor, enjoys following her progress. “Social work faculty, and she herself, have drawn my attention to her deeply engaged approach to learning, and why it matters to the social worker she aspires to be.”
Social work education can be as troubling a process as it is rewarding, according to Roche. “It often requires recognizing and questioning one’s own taken for granted assumptions and practices, as well as those of our teachers, communities, and organizations. Michelle repeatedly steps up to the challenge with an open heart and mind.”
Michelle describes herself as an optimist. There are some ideas she would like to explore on and off campus, but feels that it may be a bit too early to reveal them at this point. One topic she is not hesitant to talk about is her belief that the quality of support for veterans will improve when those in the helping professions better understand the complexities of this unique population.
“I hope to take part in research that will identify ways to reduce the alarming number of mental health issues. That means I plan to challenge long-standing, harmful mental health stigmas, and introduce many of the life-changing concepts I am learning about in the classroom. Many of these concepts fit well alongside military philosophy related to team building and accomplishing individual and organizational goals. Hopefully, my experiences as a military leader lend credibility to my message as I work to convince others of the need for new approaches related to interpersonal connections within the military community.”