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Rebecca Patterson: My journey to, beyond, and back to SVA
When I began college at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) after separating from the military, I felt lost. Although I had returned to the state that I grew up in, I was a completely different person than when I left. I was also an adult student near my 30’s on a campus full of traditionally aged students. Luckily, a Student Veterans of America (SVA) chapter had just been established, and the Military and Veterans Resource Center (MAVRC) soon followed. I spent much of my time in MAVRC as a student employee, and eventually became president of the SVA chapter at UWM. I attended my first SVA National Conference in January of 2015, where I met other veterans from across the country.
I had left the military in order to return to a science discipline, and was attending UWM to earn my Bachelor of Science in chemistry and Certificates in forensic science and forensic toxicology. I was fortunate to intern in the Milwaukee Medical Examiner’s office, where I discovered that forensic toxicology wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Near this time, I also learned about the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan from other veterans in MAVRC. Although I had deployed to the Middle East, I had been on a ship and was unaware of burn pit exposure suffered by other service members. I have since learned that service members may be exposed to many potentially toxic substances during their military service.
I knew that I wanted to continue on to graduate school to study environmental health, but needed a break between degrees. I ended up accepting an AmeriCorps VISTA position at SVA HQ. This opportunity allowed me to give back to the organization which had been so instrumental to my own academic success, and help other student veterans across the nation achieve the same success. When my service year concluded, I was hired on part time while continuing my education at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. I attended the 2016 and 2017 conferences as staff.
Ironically, I had to resign my position at SVA in the summer of 2017 due to opportunities made possible by SVA. I was selected for The Mission Continues 2017 Charlie Class Fellowship, an organization that I first discovered at the 2016 conference. I also received an offer for a teaching assistantship, an opportunity I was comfortable accepting because of my experiences presenting at the 2017 conference. Unfortunately, my new extracurricular activities meant I had to miss the 2018 conference.
I cannot overstate the incredible impact Student Veterans of America has had on my post military journey, which is why I am thrilled to return for the 2019 National Conference on behalf of The Veterans Health Council of Vietnam Veterans of America. Thanks to a partnership with Wounded Warrior Project and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, I will join my colleague Maureen (who I first met at a SVA leadership summit) in educating our future leaders on potential toxic exposures during their military service, including but not limited to burn pits, and help them take charge of their own health.
The relationships begun and strengthened at SVA events have been pivotal to my personal and professional growth. I hope to see you at the 2019 SVA National Conference!