"Prepare yourself for a better life through higher education, and, as a veteran, you know through hard work anything is possible."
Andres Perez '17, a veteran and social work graduate, discusses his Saint Martin's experience and how he made the transition from the military to higher education with the help of his wife, his service dog, Smoke, his Saint Martin's professors, and his cohort.
Throughout his fifteen-and-a-half-year career in the army, Andres Perez ’17 was busy. He deployed as a combat medic four times—three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. In that time, though, he also made it a priority to take college classes here and there, but it wasn’t until he retired from the military in 2015 that he was able to devote his full attention to finishing his bachelor’s degree.
Perez, who graduated in May with a degree in social work, first heard about Saint Martin’s University from his wife, Carrin Perez ’15, who’s also a graduate of the social work program. Before he started at Saint Martin’s, Perez had an auspicious meeting with former Saint Martin’s professor Katya Shkurkin, Ph.D., MSW, ACSW, LCSW, whom he credits for his decision to pursue a degree in social work. “Dr. Katya looked at me and said, ‘Social work is for you,’” Perez says. “And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I’ll do.’” He explained that he was also attracted to the University because of its small class sizes, the low student-to-faculty ratio and the homey feeling of the University’s community.
When he graduated this past spring, Perez walked with his service dog, Smoke. Perez explained that he and Smoke had made the journey through two years of classes together, so it only felt right to bring him to Commencement too. “Smoke has been trained to kind of calm me down in situations that otherwise are unnerving to me, and [Commencement] was kind of unnerving, so he kept me focused,” Perez says. “He’s been with me the whole time here—so I made a promise to him and he kind of made a promise to me that we’re gonna do this thing together. Walking across the stage with him was a huge relief—a huge goal accomplished.”
Besides expressing his gratitude for the influence of his wife, Carrin, Dr. Shkurkin and Tam Dinh, Ph.D., MSW, assistant professor of social work, Perez is quick to mention that he never would have made it through his two years at the University if it hadn’t been for his cohort.
“Our professors drove home this idea of your cohort as your mini-family, your school family,” he says. “That idea helped us all pull through each other through senior year, which was tough.” Perez explained that the concept of having a cohort was especially helpful to him in feeling like he belonged to the community, because at first he had the attitude that, as a transfer student, he wasn’t a full-fledged student. “But with my cohort, I kind of got out of that attitude and started opening myself up to the possibility of being a true Saint,” he says.
During his time on campus, Perez was highly involved with a number of clubs and activities. He was the vice president of the Saint Martin’s Phi Alpha honor society for social work, a member of the SALUTE veterans national honor society, a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society and the president of the Saint Martin’s veterans club. It was in this latter role that Perez found himself building relationships between veterans and non-veteran students. “When the election happened, there was almost a kind of black cloud that came over campus—it was tense there for a while,” he says. “But as president of the club, I had a chance to interact with both veterans and non-veteran students, and so I put on two barbecues and a couple other events, and opened those up to everybody. I’m hoping I was able to bridge that gap between the two groups a little.”
This summer, Perez will matriculate in the Master of Social Work (MSW) Advanced Standing Program at the University of Washington, where he will focus on policy and administration. Perez hopes to intern with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Seattle, with an ultimate ambition of influencing veterans affairs policy in his professional career.
Given his experience at Saint Martin’s, it’s unsurprising that Perez is quick to offer advice to incoming Saints about the importance of getting involved and staying involved. “I highly encourage everyone to participate in clubs and groups. Don’t think of school as just this institute for learning,” he says. “Think of it as an institute for whole education—not just for education, but for life experiences too.”
He also wanted to offer encouragement to other veterans who are thinking about making the transition to school from the military. “Going to school is difficult, challenging, and takes an enormous amount of focus,” Perez says. “But if you have spent any time in the military at all, you have the tools you need to be successful. Prepare yourself for a better life through higher education, and, as a veteran, you know through hard work anything is possible.”