Posted on June 15, 2021 by Christopher Reichert


Growing up as children of veterans, Andrea Ramos and Gabriela Losoya were both drawn to working with veterans. Now they are the first clinical mental health counseling (CMHC) students from UTSA to complete their internship at the South Texas Veterans’ Health Care System.

“[The VA] reached out to us two years ago,” said Heather Trepal, Ph.D., professor and coordinator of the CMHC program. “They had received this grant, and they wanted to partner with a clinical mental health counseling program that was CACREP accredited…Traditionally it’s been a little difficult to get our foot in the door for internships in some settings where we have a high military population…particularly the VA. So, we were thrilled because we have these students who have that passion and really want to work with this population…it was a win-win, absolutely.”

And Ramos and Losoya definitely have that passion.

“I want to work with veterans,” said Ramos, “I wanted to give back to people who served like my dad did.”

For her, becoming a counselor has always felt like a natural choice.

“I’ve always been a really good listener and my family, especially my mom, has always been like ‘you might be a really good therapist, a really good counselor,” she said.

Losoya was similarly influenced by her father’s military service, though her interest in counseling came later.

“Growing up,” she explains, “my dad had PTSD, but we didn’t know it until I was pretty much out of high school…I had that in mind as I got older, and I went to UTSA for psychology because I wanted to understand more of what my dad was going through.”

After graduating with her bachelor’s in psychology, she gravitated towards counseling as a career, saying, “I definitely had something in me that said I really want to help people, that’s just what I want to do, that’s what I felt like my soul needed.”

While the VA’s expansion grant may have provided an exciting opportunity for the counseling students, that isn’t to say that the process was without its challenges.

“There were definitely learning curves,” Ramos said, “not only for me and Gabi, but for the staff and the employees and other counselors at the VA. They had to navigate new territory too, because this is the first time this has ever come to fruition, ever been in existence. Of course, the VA has their psychology training programs, but again we’re not psychologists, we’re future LPCS; the goal is the same – to help veterans – but how we get to that goal is different.”

This distinction between licensed professional counselors (LPCS) and licensed psychologists is one of the reasons that students like Ramos and Losoya have traditionally struggled to work in settings like the VA.

However, Trepal, herself an LPC, sees this new internship as beneficial for both the counseling students and the VA itself.

“While we are adept at diagnosis and we are adept at the medical model, we also bring to it our prevention and wellness piece that I think stands out and makes us special,” she said.
“And so I get excited when we get to bring that developmental wellness perspective and the focus on prevention into that integrated care setting, and I think that that’s a place where we as counselors can grow our skillset as well.”

Trepal also believes that this internship program will make UTSA’s MHC program more attractive to prospective students.

“We’re a mission-based profession,” she said. “People come because there’s someone they want to serve or something they want to do – and so I think this program is one way to help people fulfill this mission.”

Indeed, the internship, proved a valuable experience for Ramos and Losoya, giving them numerous experiences and opportunities that had not yet encountered. For example, the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic during their coursework robbed the counseling students of important learning opportunities.

“I had my first in-person client in internship,” Ramos said, “because in practicum all of my clients were virtual.”

Another surprise came in the form of creating and leading psychoeducational groups, or therapy groups that focus primarily on educating clients about their conditions. While UTSA’s counseling students are trained in groupwork, Losoya said they were caught off guard when their supervisor requested they create new groups, which was a new experience for them both.

“I heard from other sites that they had a format you read through,” she said, “whereas we were encouraged to develop them in our own way.’”

Yet another challenge the interns faced was the winter storm in February 2021. While Ramos and Losoya were used to working from home because of the pandemic, they were caught off guard by the power and internet outages. They said even the clinic was damaged during the storm.

“That was a huge ‘what do we do?’ moment,” Losoya said.

She says that through it all, they continued to stay in contact with their clients as best as they could, reaching out to make sure they were safe and holding up throughout the week.

“I still feel like those calls that we made really helped build our rapport with them because it showed that we really did care about them,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Ramos and Losoya managed to weather the storms, both literal and metaphorical, and consider their time with the VA a definite success.

"All of our veterans felt heard and validated,” Ramos said, “and that’s all me and Gabi could ever hope for, is validation for them. They’re not a number; they’re a person, they’re a veteran, they’re a name.”

"All of our veterans felt heard and validated,” Ramos said, “and that’s all me and Gabi could ever hope for, is validation for them. They’re not a number; they’re a person, they’re a veteran, they’re a name.”

With Ramos graduating this spring, and Losoya set to graduate in the summer, both students are hopeful they might continue to work within the VA after they obtain their master’s degrees.

“I think me and Gabi found our niche here,” Ramos said. “This is where we feel most at home, this is where we feel like we belong, this is where we feel like we’ll be the most help to this community, so we’re just really hopeful.”

For her part, Trepal is proud of her first two students to graduate from the internship, both for their success and their bravery.

“I think they’re both mavericks,” she said. “They represented us well and they represented the profession well…They didn’t have somebody who was ahead of them in the program, or alumni to ask…here they were going to be the first.”

And if Ramos and Losoya do go on to work at the VA, Trepal thinks they’re well prepared, and is excited for them.

“We love seeing people get to do what they want to do,” she said.

Speaking to their fellow counseling students, Ramos and Losoya each had their share of advice. For Ramos, the takeaway was that anyone who wants to work with veterans should look into opportunities to do so.

“You don’t have to be associated with a veteran or the military to be accepted into this program,” she said, “you just really have to shine the light on why you’re passionate about this population and really hit home with why it is you want to work with this population.”

For those considering the internship, Losoya advised, “Be open, be honest. Veterans can tell when you're not being genuine.”

As UTSA graduates its first counseling students with the South Texas Veterans’ Health Care System, Trepal is hopeful that the partnership will continue and even expand. She is also grateful to Tanya Workman, the LPC who supervised and mentored the interns while they were at the VA.

“The work that she does there is impressive,” Trepal said. “She’s a great role model and example.”

- Christopher Reichert

— Christopher Reichert