November 3, 2014

Berger ’15 Works with Veterans at West Roxbury Campus VA

Psychology major Joel Berger ’15 found his passion in counseling while working with veterans in a smoke cessation group at the West Roxbury Campus VA.

Some people are fortunate enough at an early age to find something they're passionate about - they enjoy this something so much that they're eager to dedicate their life pursuing it, and even make a career out of it. Psychology major Joel Berger '15 is one of those people.

Since he was a child, Berger knew he wanted to help people and he wanted it to be part of his life's work - the first occupation that came to mind was a medical doctor.  When he arrived at Emmanuel three years ago, Berger thought he'd major in pre-med, but he quickly realized he didn't have the "hard wiring" to be a doctor. During his college career, he was on a quest to see what field he could use with his unique skillset, talents and interests to help people. He found one: counseling.

"I really am very confident that this is what I want to do with my life," he said.

During summer 2014, Berger made several attempts at getting an internship/volunteering opportunity with the VA Boston Healthcare System in the Jamaica Plain campus.  Despite several attempts, there were no openings for Berger to help at the Jamaica Plain site.

"I decided maybe if one campus doesn't want me, maybe another one does," Berger said. So, he reached out to the West Roxbury campus.

He landed a position as an ambassador of the hospital where he would show people around and answer questions - it was a start. As a new employee, Berger was required to receive a Tuberculosis (TB) test before starting the job. While getting the test, Berger met a nurse practitioner and the two began talking about their work. When the nurse practitioner found out Berger was a psychology major looking for an internship, she offered him a position to help out with a smoke cessation group she was starting at the VA. Berger jumped at the opportunity. 

"It was all about luck. She was looking for someone to help her with the group right as I was there," he said.

The smoke cessation group began in September. Berger works with a social worker and the nurse practitioner; the three individuals lead a 12-person group, which meets once a week.

With this internship, Berger hit the ground running. He creates weekly kits, patient profiles and schedules for the group.

For the first two weeks, Berger mostly observed, listened and learned from the social worker and nurse practitioner during the class and the other two days he works at the VA.

"Then, I realized I had things to say. I could help out a little bit. Slowly, but surely, I've become more comfortable with talking to these veterans through the process of quitting smoking and other health benefits. I've provided a couple of them with exercise ideas that they can do. I'm really into health, as well. I've been getting comfortable counseling them toward a healthy lifestyle," Berger said.

Berger has thoroughly enjoyed his experience at the VA. He doesn't have any family or friends who are veterans, but thinks soldiers' jobs are honorable and he wanted to give back to them. He added that the VA system is always in need of people who can help.

"There's not enough people out there nowadays that want to put their time into helping veterans, who have done such a great service for our community and for our country," Berger said. "I think we owe it to them to provide them with much care when they come back from war because they literally have gone through the hardest, most traumatic thing ever."

In his senior year, Berger is finishing up some psychology courses, which he said have been extremely instrumental to his work with this group. Currently, he is taking a Counseling Theories and Techniques course. After the class ends for the day, he heads over to the VA where he immediately implements the lessons.

"It's really cool to have that transition, as opposed to learning something way before and then going out into the professional world. I can learn something and 30 to 45 minutes later I'm doing it. It's cool to see," he said.

After graduation, Berger hopes to pursue a license in professional counseling, but before he heads back to school to get a master's in counseling, he'd like to venture into the field to get some experience. He plans to apply to counseling positions at VAs. On his own time, Berger independently researches Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), because it is a common diagnosis among veterans.

"I really enjoy committing my time there," Berger said. "I love it. It's incredible. Every week, it gets better and better. I'm getting more comfortable. I'm enjoying it more, and at the same time, it's reassuring me that this is something I want to do with my life."

To fellow students, Berger wants them to know he landed this internship with persistence. For him, the internship has been a long-time coming, since he tried his hand at other majors and classes that didn't quite seem to fit.

If he could offer advice, he said, "If you really want to do something, don't let a 'No' tell you that you can't do something. Don't worry if it requires more effort. It does require more effort. To put in that little bit of extra effort to get something you want, it's worth it."

Joel Berger '15

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