Erin Gallagher is a senior sociology major at Beloit College and is currently an intern at two internships: one with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as a graphic design division officer, and the other at the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office in Janesville, Wisconsin. Erin splits her time between schoolwork, her internships and at her job doing graphic design for her school’s library. She wants to pursue a law degree in Juris Doctor and Master of Social Work (JD/MSW) and eventually work on rehabilitating people in the criminal justice system.

Erin learned about the Digital Media Engagement (DME) Internship Program at the VA through a Facebook message that her uncle had sent her that made her interested to apply for a position on the graphic design team. Erin’s willingness to branch out to her community of Veterans in Wisconsin and Michigan enabled her to diversify her experience and knowledge outside of her graphic design work. After completing several #VeteransOfTheDay graphics (VODs), Erin moved on to #ContentCalender graphics and logos, her favorite being Center for Women Veterans (CWV). 

Erin’s father was in the Army for 26-27 years and she remembers going to Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) centers with her family while growing up. In high school, she frequently volunteered at VFWs and at a nursing home that had many Veterans. Erin said that she enjoys talking to Veterans because of the opportunities she has at getting their stories heard through social work and at the internship.

Her favorite project so far at the VA is the graphic she made for the Navy’s birthday, despite her father potentially being shocked because “he’s an Army man.” One of her favorite things at the internship is the interaction she gets with Veterans through interviews and also with other interns, supervisors and also being interviewed by Shannon for this podcast.

By the end of her time at the VA internship, Erin hopes to have made plenty of connections that she can later refer to for help, advice and direction in the future, and have made friends to meet with and visit them in their cities.

Use the audio player to listen to Erin’s full interview, or read the transcript below:


Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs Digital Media Engagement Interns Podcast. This podcast will focus on the experience and work of various interns on the Digital Media Engagement’s team who are working with us as part of the Virtual Student Federal Service internship within the department of Veteran’s Affairs. This podcast is two interns having a conversation about their experiences in order to highlight the work, as well as encourage application to this program and friendship amongst the interns. So please join us as we highlight and get to know some of the many interns that are part of our program. Thank you for listening!  Today I have Erin with us, she is a senior Sociology major.  She’s currently involved in two internships, one here with the VA as a graphic design Division Officer, and the other with the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office in Janesville, Wisconsin.  She splits time with schoolwork, her internships, and her job doing graphic design for the school library and as a freelancer.  When she’s not working, she’s reading, drawing, taking a run or a walk, or playing video games.  She loves music, and is currently a part of her acapella group on campus, and is involved in collegiate choir and voice lessons.  She wants to pursue a J.D.M.S.W. and eventually work on rehabilitating people in the criminal justice system and the system itself.  So, that is quite the resume, thank you so much for being here with us today Erin.  So, wow, you do a lot.  First question, do you sleep?  

Erin Gallagher: I do sleep.  I have to.

SM: I also juggle two internships and everything else so I understand the grind.  How are you doing today? 

EG: I’m doing pretty good.  How about yourself?

SM: Good, so how did you get into graphic design?  

EG: Actually in high school I did a lot of sketching and physical pencil, normal “art,” and then I was playing around with Pixlr, I don’t know if people still use that like the free version, and my drawing teacher asked if I had tried graphic design.  I said no, so she told me to sign up for a graphic design class that next semester, because our high school had tons of extracurriculars which was really nice.  So I did that and ended up really falling in love with it, and then I kind of got away from it in college towards the beginning.  Then, my sophomore year, I was looking for a job because I was just kind of done working at a coffee shop.  I.T. had an opening, and I applied for it, and in that interview, my boss now asked me if I did any graphic design stuff, we really need someone to fill that gap.  I responded, actually, yeah!  So I got back into it, and now it’s been my little hobby that also gets me some coin.

SM: That’s a good gig, I love that.  Okay, so outside of graphic design work, you are a Sociology major and want to work in the criminal justice system which is so cool.  You study Sociology, and your side hobby is graphic design.  How did you end up at the VA doing graphic design for us?

EG: Well, it was actually kind of funny, my uncle sent me a Facebook message and it was something from the DME or the VA.  Somebody had reposted an application for the internship, and he thought of me because I have an Instagram account for graphic design.  All of my family members follow it, so a lot of them know that I do it on the side.  So he saw that, and said some of them are looking for graphic designers, and I know you want to work with veterans too (I have a lot of aspirations, anyways).  So I saw that, and he told me to apply, so I did.  Then I got it, and I accepted! But it definitely was not a planned out forethought thing, which is kind of fun, I happen to stan stuff like that.

SM: Yeah, me too.  I don’t think that’s what most people get in their inbox when their uncle sends them a Facebook message.  I’m glad that worked out for you.  So, what exactly do you do for us?  What projects are you working on, what kinds of things do you do with your time with the VA?

EG: Yeah, I started with VOD’s, I think everyone starts with doing the VOD’s.  When I started, I think it was September, there were not a ton of VOD’s that needed graphics, which was like well darn, I need to get three in before I can do other stuff.  Not exactly, but I don’t know, they encourage it.  So instead of waiting around for something to pop up, I decided to just find some veterans to interview.  So I went on a bunch of Facebook groups for Wisconsin and Michigan, and states that I’ve lived in or been involved with VA centers and VFWs at.  So I joined those groups and I put a post in there, saying hey, anybody want to get interviewed for the VA’s blog?  It’s super easy you just get a little profile about you because we’re thankful for your service!  And I got a lot of people that way because I think I gained a lot more in that sense than I would have if I had just stuck strictly to graphics and not tried to seek out anybody to interview.  I have some veteran friends now, some of them friended me on Facebook.  It’s cute because they’ll check in with me and ask me how my graphics are doing, and I’ll tell them they’re going good.  So I started with that, and after doing the VOD’s for a while, I moved onto the content calendar graphic.  I think that’s kind of my happy spot, and then logos because I had already done that.  I did one for the Center for Women Veterans which is my favorite logo I’ve done so far.  I’m working on your guys’, so that’s coming up this week.  I have drafts done, I just have to send something to you and Jonathan.  

SM: Sweet, we have to talk about that after this.  It sounds like you’ve done work with veterans before.  What is your background with working with veterans prior to the internship?

EG: Yeah, so my dad was actually in the Army for 27 years I think.  Through that, we would go to VFWs a lot as a family just to hang out with his dudes, and I’d get to meet other Army veterans and stuff.  So in high school, I did a lot of volunteering with VFWs.  There was a nursing home especially that had a lot of veterans, and it wasn’t even that I was specifically looking for veterans at that point, but I just realized that it was a population that I really enjoyed talking to and working with.  My flip side to wanting to do criminal justice type stuff, I really want to work with veterans and do social work, and just talk to veterans and make them feel heard.  I feel like half the time especially during the interviews I did at the beginning of this internship, it feels like a lot of the issue is just not being heard.  Some of them are just lonely, and they have no one to talk to about what is going on.  So even being able to hop on Zoom and say hey means a lot for them.  I think it’s something that everyone considers such a small thing, but it’s really big for a lot of them.  

SM: So growing up with your dad being an Army veteran, have you learned anything about the veteran experience or the VA on the flip side of this, so interning for the VA that you did not know prior, or that you didn’t appreciate before?

EG: I think it’s always been kind of a double-edged sword because while there is a lot of service and a lot of good that the VA does, I always think that there’s room for improvement.  Especially seeing how my dad was getting back from being deployed, and a lot of the issues that came up with that not being addressed by the VA or easily addressed by reaching out to them and having to go through a lot of hoops, for lack of a better word.  I think it has gotten better now, but I do think that the screening process on the other end of coming back from being deployed needs to be better.  Which is why I want to do social work, I hope to help to do that because I don’t think people will just tell you that they are struggling.  Especially after you’ve been stuck with your comrades doing **** for years, months, whatever, you’re not going to come home and be like yeah, my feelings.  

SM: True, so what has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on for the VA so far?  

EG: I think I’ve been most proud of the graphic I did for the Navy birthday, which will make my dad roll over, because he’s an Army man.  But Army just won the game, so sorry sailors! But anyways, that graphic was really fun to make.

SM: Sorry Dom!

EG: It’s okay, he knows.  That graphic was really fun to make because I found this vintage photo of a Navy vessel, and I was just like, that would look sick as a vintage postcard, so then I had this vision and did it, and it looked really good in my humble opinion.  But I was super proud of it, so I’d like to do it again.  I’m hoping to do something similar, if not better for Army birthday.  If I’m still in the internship, because the Army birthday is in June, and we finish in May.  Maybe I’ll just do something preemptively and be done a month early.  

SM: That’s awesome.  Just for dad, right? 

EG: Got to have the balance.

SM: Of course, of course.  So what has been your favorite thing about the internship so far?

EG: I think honestly connecting with veterans has been my favorite part.  There’s no one similar experience among all of them, and I’m such a people person, and being in a pandemic, I can’t go out, I can’t go talk to people, or hang out with people as normal.  So I get most of my human interaction through Zoom and stuff.  Being able to connect to these veterans and have interviews, and not that they have to talk to me, but I have a reason to be like, hey, do you want to talk to me?  So I get to have people time, but I think honestly the people between the veterans and then also my supervisors and people like you that I’ve met through the program, it’s cool to see everybody have their own niche within such a big overarching system and how all of our little individual parts come together to make a really cool final product.  

SM: Yes, it is really fun.  It’s crazy, I was talking to Dom the other day, and he said over the course of the internship, we’ve completed over 200,000 hours of work, which is insane, the amount of things that we’ve done.  But, what are some of your goals for the rest of your time in the internship?  What do you want to keep doing?

EG: I know that I want to keep doing the good graphic stuff, I need to get to another Navy birthday graphic.  I feel like that’s my peak that I got to with Veteran’s Day, and then since then, I’ve just kind of rode the waves.  Half of that has been finals though, so now that that’s over, hopefully I can breathe a little bit.  Also, like you said, two internships so breathing?  Ehh, we’ll see.  

SM: Oh yeah.  

EG: Hahaha, so that for sure.  I think I’d like to get back to interviewing more veterans.  The two groups that I had talked to though, I feel like I got everybody out of those.  Not that they’re small, but a lot of veterans in them are a little suspicious of a 22 year old being like hey, I want to interview you, but I don’t actually have a VA email and I don’t actually work for the VA.  But I’m an intern, and I volunteer for them.  So do you want to talk to me?  

SM: Yeah, I’ve definitely got that working with Natives.  It’s a whole different experience, I mean, sometimes the internet access is a little spotty, and then you’re like, hey, I’m a 20 something VA intern who would like to interview you for this podcast, and they’re like I don’t know what’s happening.  No, I totally understand that.  Sometimes our credibility is a little bit questioned by veterans, rightfully so.  100% justifiable.  But, it does happen.

EG: It’s nice when you come over that and you make a friend on the other end of it.  I had one veteran who did not trust that I was a real person.  I told him he could call me on the phone, we can talk before I do the interview if you want.  So we did, we talked for about an hour and he was so sweet.  Even after that, now he keeps emailing me and I’ll send him emails back telling him I’m doing good and finishing finals.  He tells me about Piper, his dog (he loves his dog) and they’re so cute.  It’s adorable.  

SM: It’s so fun.  I think I have been given an unofficial stay in Oklahoma, I could go hang out in Kansas.  Pick a city at this point and somebody’s like, when you’re here, you’re more than welcome to let me know.  

EG: That’s the thing, human connection.  I think that’s–

SM: We all miss it.  And I think the people who miss it the most are our age group, and some of the older veterans.  So I’ve become pals with this 110 year old woman from Kansas who’s a World War Two veteran.  The oldest living female veteran who is also Native, she and I are friends now, it’s a great time.  So, what are your goals for after the internship?

EG: I know that I want to go to law school, get my G.E.D. and start working within the system to get stuff changed.  It’s hard to imagine all of that, because I have a lot of people who tell me you can do whatever you want to do, and then I have people who tell me you realize how hard that is right?  You’re one person.  But, I’m going to do it.  So yeah, I know I have big aspirations and for me, if I don’t change anything big, if I at least change one person’s life and give them a fair fighting chance at living the life they want to live then I’ve done a good job.  I want to work with inmates and keep people out of prison.  I want to work with veterans, and help them navigate the VA, but also have someone to talk to if I go the social worker route.  I want to go both, but–

SM: You never know.  So clearly you’re a very talented graphic designer.  What do you want to do with that?  Is this something post internship that’s just going to get pushed to the side, is it something you want to pursue in freelance on top of everything else, what is your plan to do that?

EG:  I would like to work for non-profits or cater to non-profits and help them grow a social media presence or get better logos or better flyers.  I really enjoyed working with the Center for Women Veterans, so I think maybe veteran non-profits.  I think I’m going to end up doing graphic design stuff as a side hustle hobby that makes me some money, but I don’t know if it can be a full career at this point.  That’d be lovely, if it could be, but I also don’t know if I’m cut out for the starving artist life.  I don’t know what I want to do, but I want to change stuff, so I know I need power.  Who has power?  Lawyers.  I don’t know, so.  

SM: You know what?  Go for it.  So, what is your advice to a new intern who has just started in the program?

EG: I would say just try everything.  Try something of everything.  You’ll figure out what you like very quickly.  I love doing VOD graphics, but I got pretty bored after a while.  So I was glad I found the content calendar, because I think there’s more creativity involved with doing those, and it helps me.

SM: So, for people who don’t know, can you explain what the content calendar is?

EG: Yeah, so basically, if there’s a big holiday, anniversary, or a birthday for anything involving the armed forces or the VA or government organizations, we have a post that we make to celebrate that.  Navy birthday would be one, Veteran’s Day, stuff like that.  We have people who write captions, fact-checkers to make sure all the years and whatnot are correct, and then have people do the graphics so there’s an Instagram graphic and a Facebook graphic and those are what I like doing.  

SM: Yeah, that sounds like fun.  So yeah, just put yourself out there for all of it.  What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of this internship?

EG: I hope to have made some good connections that I can continue to refer back to with either life help or employment help.  I also hope to have made some friends by the end of it that I can be like, hey, I’m in your city we should meet up in person for the first time.  

SM: Remember that person you used to Slack periodically?  Hello.  So you’re a department office, right?  What does that look like, what does a department officer do?

EG: I do less than department heads for sure, but I think my goal is to get nit-picky with the graphics.  I’ll go through boards and check out graphics that have been done, and whoever the designer is, if there’s something that needs to be fixed I ask them to fix it.  If there’s an issue with layout, I’ll slack people, we’ll talk about design stuff and changes to make stuff better.  I think it’s mainly me checking out graphics and seeing if they meet standards and if they look okay, and what can be changed to make them look better.  As far as checking out weekly reports, that’s not what I do.  

SM: So what would you say is the biggest thing you have learned from being a part of the internship so far?

EG: I would say time management, but I think I was already pretty good with time management because I do too much to not be good at time management.  

SM: It’s less time management and more of a “you’re forced into it.” 

EG: Yeah so, kind of a reinstatement of that, yes, be good at managing your time.  I think with communication, I’ve haven’t gotten better, but I’ve realized it’s important to ask questions and it’s okay if you’re confused about something, bring it up.  If something needs to be done, bring it up.  If something isn’t looking good, bring it up.  I think just not being afraid to reach out to my supervisors and telling them something looks wack.

SM: Advocating for someone on your team, totally.  Tell me a fun fact about yourself.  Just as we wrap this up, give me something.  

EG: I sing, which people tend to just guess because I sing when talking, and I don’t even realize I do it.  People will ask me why am I singing, and I’ll tell them I don’t know.  But I’ll literally sing my response, so I don’t know.  I have two cats.  One of them is the son of the devil, and the other one is a little angel, so yeah.

SM: What are their names?

EG: Loki, which is why I messed up because we named him Loki, so obviously he was going to be a chaotic little man.  And then Luna, is our little girl who’s chill.  I actually have Loki locked up, because I knew if I had him out he would try to go for my computer.  He really knows when I’m on Zoom, he’ll just try to end it as soon as possible.

SM: That’s awesome.  Well thank you so much for this interview.  

EG: Of course! 

SM: It was so great to have you and I’m sure that listeners will learn a lot about the internship and enjoy this episode. Thank you for tuning in to the DME Interns podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!