PEARLS Fellow at Penn Gives Back to Other Veterans

Twenty years ago, Pete Freudenberger took an oath when he enlisted in the United States Army. Now, the veteran and non-traditional student has graduated with his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice, taking a pledge of a different sort, to empower others.

As a boy growing up in Cincinnati, Freudenberger was taught to care for others and support anyone in need.

“It is our job as human beings to work hand in hand with others who may not share our vantage point in life,” he says. “Acts of collaboration and cooperation have always left me enriched with feelings of a heightened sense of empathy and understanding of the people that I work with and of myself.”

After completing basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., in 1995 Freudenberger went on to advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, S.C.

While on active duty, Freudenberger served as a personnel information systems management specialist and provided administrative, human resources-related support for soldiers. A major part of his job was making certain that others were combat-ready.

He loved life in the Army and was determined to be “a lifer,” serving his entire 20-year career on active duty. But then his path unexpectedly changed course when he sustained a back injury.

“I went into the Army as a boy and came out a man,” Freudenberger says. “I learned incredible lessons in humility, trust, perseverance and attention to detail. I also learned a great deal about individualism and how each person brings a set of values, beliefs and skills to every situation.”

Following his injury, the married father of five turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. As a part of its vocational rehabilitation program, he was able to return to school.

After building a career in social services, Freudenberger knew that he wanted an Ivy League education and Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice was his first choice.

He was drawn to the Program in Mental Health Education Assessment, Recovery and Leadership for Social Workers, called PEARLS.

PEARLS provides specialized training in mental and behavioral health care to master’s level social work students, allowing them to focus on how to best support military personnel, veterans and their families.

“I wanted to continue my journey with the military,” Freudenberger explains. “As a PEARLS Fellow, I feel like I can give my time and talents to serve and defend my fellow soldiers, with whom I share a sacred bond.”

During Freudenberger’s PEARLS Fellowship, his field placement brought him to the Bucks County Vet Center in Bristol, Pa., which provides a broad range of counseling, outreach and referral services to combat veterans and their loved ones.

“Veterans seeking treatment are often struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, alcohol or substance abuse issues, suicidal or homicidal thoughts and other readjustment concerns,” he says. 

The Vet Center’s purpose is to assist soldiers and their families in making a successful transition from service.  At first, Freudenberger felt as though he was a little bit out of his professional comfort zone, but there was a mission to be accomplished, and he approached it with enthusiasm.

“Taking this leap has made me into a better clinician and a stronger advocate for the clients I serve,” he says.

Freudenberger’s next mission is to build upon the skills he’s learned during the PEARLS Fellowship to secure an administrative position with the Department of Veterans Affairs within the next five years.

As an actively engaged alumnus and agent of social change, Freudenberger also plans to continue to advocate that Penn should establish a student veteran center on campus.

“Penn has the potential to make great strides in becoming known as a trailblazer within the Ivy League community in creating safe and supportive spaces for our returning service members transitioning to civilian life as students,” Freudenberger says.

“The School of Social Policy & Practice has so many groups and specific concentrations that it enables students to easily find their place at Penn and develop close relationships,” says Freudenberger. “Having these micro-communities was very important to my well-rounded experience here.” 

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