Faces of Haviland: Student Veteran Lelah Ben-Ron Windell (MSW ’22)

Lelah Windell in uniform with American flag in background
November 10, 2020

As we acknowledge Veterans' Day and the contributions of veterans to our country and to our university, we spoke to first-year MSW student Lelah Ben-Ron Windell about her experiences in the Air Force and how they led her to pursue an MSW.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you describe your military service?

I joined the Air Force in 2000, when I was 20 years old. I was an aerial porter, so I was responsible for all aspects of loading and unloading the cargo planes, as well as configuring the center balance for the aircraft. After about seven years in the Air Force, I spent four years as a teacher for a developmental leadership institution named Airman Leadership School. That is a developmental course that our airmen have to go through in order to become supervisors in the Air Force, so the curriculum is filled with leadership and interpersonal communication courses, all designed to develop them into effective frontline supervisors.

My first duty station was in Alaska, then I was stationed here at Travis Air Force Base [in Fairfield], Then my family moved to New Jersey for some time, then I was stationed in Honduras for a year, and then we made our way back to California, which is where I retired just a few months ago. By the time I retired, I had attained the rank of Senior Master Sergeant.

Was your decision to pursue an MSW related to your experiences in the Air Force?

Being a supervisor in the military is unique in that we're required to ensure the health and well-being of our subordinates on a holistic level. When our airmen come to us with personal challenges, we have to think about what services they need and how to link them with those services, whether it's financial services, housing support, mental health services, family counseling services, and the like. So one of the aspects of my service that drew me to pursue an MSW was my experience in helping airmen get connected to the services that will help them work through like difficult transitions in their lives.

For example, during my last deployment I led a team of 46 people. We had to stay engaged in daily conversations to work through the anxiety of our dangerous working conditions, our unfamiliar environment, and our extended separation from family. And in addition to providing emotional support, my focus was also on expediting travel arrangements for service members heading home due to family emergencies and other hardships. It's really important for service members to work through those stressors so we can focus on working safely in the deployed environment.

Throughout my military service, managing and leading teams was inherent in my job, but my number one priority was always to help with the welfare and morale of those military members that I was put in charge of.

And are you planning on working in veterans' services once you complete your MSW?

Yes, I think so. Because I know that people usually seek out or are referred to social welfare services because they're going through some sort of transition in their life. They're either trying to improve or work through a difficult time. And as far as service members and veterans are concerned, I have a certain level of understanding about the transitions that they go through because I've navigated them myself. Like most service members and veterans, I've had to leave my family for extended periods of time during deployments, navigate reintegration when coming home, move my family to different locations, and experience the birth of kids and the death of loved ones, all while balancing the high demands of military operations. And usually we do these things without the support of extended family members because we often don't live near home anymore. Service members and veterans kind of become each other's extended family and support systems during these transitions. I'm constantly relating the theories and principles of social work that I'm learning in my classes to the military and veteran environment. My goal is to be able to relate and build rapport with service members and veterans and then use my skills and knowledge as a social worker to support them.

Can you briefly describe your field placement this year?

I'm at the Contra Costa County's Health Housing and Homeless Services Division. I'm really fortunate in that I get to be on-site at my internship. I get to meet the clients face-to-face just to meet them and build rapport with them, and then I'll speak to them over the phone for actual counseling.

How has your experience been as a student veteran, both at UC Berkeley as a whole and within the School of Social Welfare?

It has really been phenomenal. I've had nothing but great experiences. My first experience with Berkeley was at an educational fair that was being held on base before I retired. I was at work on base, and I got an email that there was an education fair going on at the community center and that UC Berkeley had a table there. And since they were one of the schools represented, I thought "let me go talk to them." I knew I was going to apply to Sacramento State and San Francisco State, but I really didn't know that Berkeley would even be an option for me since my undergrad degree is in strategic leadership.

I went to UC Berkeley's table at the educational fair and I spoke with Luis Hernandez, who's from the Cal Veteran Services Center. Through email, he connected me to [Matthew Smith], a veteran MSW student in the graduate admissions team at the School of Social Welfare. They did a really great job of just taking the time to answer my questions and helping me make sure that I met the admissions requirements... and the rest is history.

There's such a wide range and wealth of experience from the students and faculty at the School of Social Welfare. They have just been phenomenal. Everyone has been so helpful in trying to help me if I have struggles, or if I need help navigating through something. I've learned so much from them, and I'm constantly humbled to be part of this cohort.

What are some of the insights into social work that you've gained from your time in the Air Force?

I took an unconventional route to a graduate degree. Usually after high school people go to college and then they start a career, whereas I started a career and kind of completed a career while getting my undergrad degree, and now I'm a middle-aged grad student. The good thing about that is that I know what I want to do and I have experience and knowledge rooted in my purpose. I feel really grateful to be here at this point, and to be going through it at Berkeley.