By:  Ian Mahoney

As a master of public policy candidate in the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy (Jefferson Program) at the College of William and Mary I have been fortunate to work as a policy consultant for the Puller Clinic through the Jefferson Program’s capstone Policy Research Seminar. During my first semester with the clinic my team and I put our quantitative and analytical skills to work valuing the services that the Puller Clinic offers. I found the work my team and I did so rewarding that when the offer came up to stay on with the clinic for another semester, I readily took the opportunity.

One of the most intriguing facets of working with the Puller Clinic is the unique experience it offers. The clinic thrives on cooperation. In addition to helping a veteran with their disability claim, it partners with other academic institutions, like the Center for Psychological Services and Development at Virginia Commonwealth University or the Jefferson Program, to help veterans access the care they need. The technical term for this, or one of them at least, is co-specialization. This type of cooperation unites numerous organizations, each with their own areas of expertise, in an effort to holistically provide the assistance that none of the individual groups would be able to offer on their own. This model is efficient and effective because it adapts to the individual veteran and serves as a learning experience for students in the respective academic programs. Unfortunately, there is no dictionary provided.

Coming into the clinic I was prepared for a crash course in veteran law. I was unaware I was going to be learning a whole new language. Terms like “establishing a nexus” and “rating schedule” were casually passed around the clinic’s office making it feel like I had taken a trip much longer than the distance between the main campus of William and Mary and the law school. I slowly picked up on the jargon and began to notice when I used lingo myself. Over the last year and half in the Jefferson Program I had grown accustomed to being surrounded by people who were familiar with linear regressions and cost-benefit analyses and it took some effort to remember that not everyone I was now working with was as comfortable with those terms. There was a steep learning curve upon entering into this new environment, but it was one that was worth the effort to overcome.

This lesson in cross-cultural communication was not one I was expecting, but looking back, it is one of the most beneficial experiences I have had in my time with the clinic. Communication gaps strike me as one of the primary barriers to successful cooperation. The Puller Clinic and the Helping Military Veterans Through Higher Education (HMVHE) initiative ground themselves on their strong ability to converse with their clients and to work across organizations to provide veterans with all of the help they need. None of their accomplishments would have been possible if they did not take the time to learn how to interact their clients and partners. The most important component of cooperation is being able to listen and be heard. Moving forward multi-organization partnerships will become more numerous and it is critical to remember that though you may be speaking a different language than your partners, you all have the same goal, and that will help decrease the communication barriers over time.

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