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Social Work students earn Air Force scholarship

Paul Richardson receives his commission from Anthony Hassan, director of the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families. (Photo/Joe Lyman)

The USC School of Social Work established the first military social work program at a civilian research university and can now claim another first — three of its students will receive the first full-tuition scholarships from the U.S. Air Force to study social work.

Veterans Paul Richardson, Morgan McNabb and Stephen Velasquez were awarded the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship to pursue careers in clinical social work in exchange for service as commissioned officers. The inaugural two-year program covers tuition and all school costs plus a monthly stipend and a place in the Air Force Clinical Social Work Residency Program upon graduation.

“Our students getting this scholarship is a result of the school establishing a strong professional relationship with senior Air Force leadership,” said Anthony Hassan, director of the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, who personally commissioned Richardson. “USC has gained their confidence in our ability to deliver strong military social work officers in their ranks.”

A year ago, Richardson was a postal worker in Orange County, Calif., dreaming of a military commission so he could help troops deal with mental health issues. A former enlisted serviceman, Richardson always knew he wanted to help people but never thought it would be through social work or that he would be a recipient of one of the first Air Force social work scholarships.

Like many people, Richardson admitted he had a very narrow view of what social work actually is, thinking mainly of the families and child welfare side. He thought he wanted to be a military clinical psychologist but soon learned this field is research-based. After discovering that social workers perform most military mental health treatment, Richardson decided to pursue this new path.

“I knew I wanted to commission [into the military] as a clinician because I think it’s helpful to have prior enlisted experience when working with enlisted clients,” said Richardson, who had enlisted in 2004 for a brief stint in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It makes it easier for them to open up if they know I’ve been in their situation.”

Despite the costs of college, Richardson began attending the Orange County Academic Center part-time in the fall of 2011 while maintaining his job as a postal worker. While there, he met a fellow classmate and veteran, Mike Metal, who helped him become acclimated to life in graduate school.

“Beginning in boot camp, we are taught to always help a fellow veteran,” Metal said. “Paul is very open, humble and dedicated to his family — these are all traits I greatly respect.”

Metal, a retired Navy technician, guided Richardson during the first weeks of school, helped with writing graduate-level papers throughout his first semester and ultimately introduced him to Hassan, who encouraged Richardson to apply for the Air Force scholarship. The problem was the scholarship was open only to full-time students, which meant Richardson would have to choose whether to quit his job at the post office.

As the father of two children, Richardson told himself he shouldn’t even consider quitting given the current state of the economy. But the desire to pursue his dream was too great, and Richardson decided to go all in.

Richardson’s sacrifices would pay off in a phone interview with the commanding officer of the Air Force social work program. Richardson said it was surreal for a prior enlisted man to be talking to a colonel, especially for the biggest interview of his life.

“Back in the Marines, talking to a colonel usually meant I [had] really messed up,” said Richardson, who was grateful he could pace around on the phone instead of appearing in person. “I was so nervous talking to him because not only was he a high-ranking officer, this interview is what I gave up so much for.”

After hanging up, Richardson sent a short thank you email, and within a minute, the colonel responded by saying he would give him his highest recommendation.

After a long month of waiting, Richardson received the good news.

Hassan commissioned the now 2nd Lt. Richardson into the Air Force during his second semester. While he still needs to complete his MSW studies, Richardson would like to focus on additional substance abuse treatment training during his one-year residency program after graduation.

“Commissioning Paul Richardson was a very rewarding experience for me both personally and professionally,” Hassan said. “In the military, it is always an honor to commission a fellow service member into the officer ranks, but his commissioning was even more special because he is joining the Air Force social worker profession that I just retired from.”

Richardson will be joined by McNabb, an MSW@USC student living in Germany who is married to an active duty service member. She previously served in the Air Force from 2002 to 2005 and left to pursue an undergraduate degree. Like Richardson, McNabb wants to become an officer to promote the mental health and well-being of service members.

“Winning the scholarship was surreal,” said McNabb, who was commissioned shortly after Richardson. “It meant the goal I set 10 years earlier was finally becoming a reality. Being accepted into one of the top MSW programs was a great accomplishment, and that feeling was equaled when I was offered this scholarship and the opportunity to commission.”

After completing her MSW, McNabb will transition to active-duty service, where she hopes to continue for at least another 16 years as an Air Force social worker, with the opportunity to work in various departments, including mental health, family advocacy, and alcohol and substance abuse.

Stephen Velasquez, an MSW@USC student based in Nebraska who is currently interning with the 55th Medical Group at Offut Air Force Base, always knew that he wanted to serve his country and joined the U.S. Army in 2002. He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and saw several of his friends struggle with traumatic experiences from their time in the combat zone — experiences that destroyed families, led to alcohol abuse, and in one instance, suicide.

These experiences, coupled with the mentorship and encouragement of a professor and Air Force major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, directly influenced Velasquez to apply to the School of Social Work and the Air Force scholarship program.

“I knew that USC, with its high-ranking social work program, was the right fit for me, as I appreciated the flexibility of attending class from wherever I liked, along with its evidence-based practice approach to social work,” he said. “I want to help my fellow servicemembers overcome the challenges that arise in military life, and the Air Force was the best way.”

Velasquez is on track to finish earning his Master of Social Work in December, when he will enter active duty.

Richardson is also excited to begin his service. And he’s optimistic that a change in military culture will get troops to openly talk about the issues they’re dealing with instead of bottling them up out of fear of appearing weak.

“The military is becoming more accepting of the idea that you need to maintain a service member’s mental health, as well as his physical health,” he said. “The military finally realizes that taking care of problems when they start — and not waiting until troops break — is much more effective. I like the idea that I get to be there and experience the evolution of that change over the next 20 or so years.”

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