A junior in college, Army ROTC cadet and writing intern for the VA-DME team, Joanna sheds light on her day-to-day life juggling all of her responsibilities and how they have shaped who she is today. Taking the chance in high school with their Navy JROTC program, she came to realize a passion toward the career paths and work which military service can provide. She credits the program for helping to develop her character and attaining the work ethic, which she brings to all of her endeavors including this internship. Studying psychology and leadership in college, all the while participating in ROTC, Joanna grew a particular interest and respect for the veteran community as she seeks to give back to those who served. Her ideals, experiences and desire to work with people led her to find the VSFS VA-DME internship. She is excited to be a part of a team that is giving her the opportunity to be a part of a team that highlights veterans and gives them recognition for their service.

Use the audio player to listen to Joanna’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 intern podcast here with the Department of Digital Media Engagement. My name is Shannon Moran, and I am an intern and Executive Team Leader here with DME. I help run multiple podcasts within our platform, and host this one as well. We work really hard to make sure that you, the listener, get to learn more about what we do here within our DME program, tour fellow interns, and hopefully you can learn more about the other departments that we have within our program, and maybe compel you to apply if you are not an intern with us. That being said, I hope you enjoy!

Mercedes Hesselroth: Alright, welcome Joanna. Um, first of all, I just wanted to check in with you because I know you’re in California and right now there’s a lot of wildfires going on. I’m wondering how you’re doing and how your campus and community and family are doing.

Joanna Hwang: Yeah, so, currently I’m living in Diamond Bar. I’m actually living in an Air B&B with some other students just so we could have some off-campus housing. It’s pretty crazy. The sky is orange, and there’s been a lot of ash falling. But otherwise, we’re okay. It’s just that it’s kind of interesting to look outside and see like a big red sun. And we do have to clean our yard and our cars since all that ash is accumulating. We can’t really do any exercise because of the unhealthy air quality. But for the most part we’re okay and we’re just hoping that the fires go out soon.

MH: Yeah, you mentioned that you can’t exercise or go outside really. How is that affecting the ROTC training that you’re doing? Are you all still able to meet?

JH: Well, it’s a pretty complicated training situation, not just because of the fires but because of the pandemic. So essentially, what we’ve been doing is training on our own, and definitely because of the wildfires it’s been a lot harder. But, with me personally, what I’ve been doing is staying indoors, and I just try to do most of my exercising there so I just lift weights. I just did an upper-body weight lifting workout yesterday in the garage. So, I still try to exercise but not super strenuously because I don’t want to inhale all that bad air.

MH: So how does that affect the chain of command and leadership structure that you guys have?

JH: Oh, it has no effect, really. We still have, um, we still follow the chain of command, and we do rotate leadership positions so like it changes. But for the most part, it hasn’t changed. I guess the only difference is that we communicate a lot more virtually. And there is a lot more flexibility as to what we get tasked. Since we’re not all together, we have cadets living in different parts of the U.S. There has to be a lot more understanding involved as to when people get things done.

MH: And what drew you to ROTC in the first place?

JH: Yeah so, in high school, I was actually a part of the Navy JROTC program. JROTC stands for Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and that’s basically just ROTC on a high school level. Um, I joined that my sophomore year of high school and I actually fell in love with the program. Through it, I realized that you know what, doing military stuff is something that I think would be a really great fit for me. I just liked all the challenges that were involved, just the ROTC program in general as an opportunity to develop my character and also as a potential career in the future. So, towards the end of high school, I started looking at ROTC opportunities. And I wanted to have ROTC at one of my top colleges. So when I got accepted into my top college, and I saw that it had an ROTC program, I just went for it. It was actually an Army ROTC program, but I didn’t really care. To me, ROTC was ROTC. So yeah, that’s why I went in.

MH: And have you selected your preferred MOS yet?

JH: Ooo, umm, no I haven’t. So, I’m actually a junior, and I’m undergoing that process where I’m preparing to go to advanced camp. It’s essentially like, it’s about like a month, a month to a half event where cadets all across the country go to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and get tested on a variety of things like land navigation, shooting, physical fitness. And then it’s kind of after that that you get to decide where you get to rank your preferences, and then you get your preferences submitted for review. And I think you find your MOS sometime in December or January of your senior year. Umm, I will say though, I do have my top MOS preference picked out, and that would be AG, Adjutant General, which is like the Human Resources branch of the Army.

MH: So does that have to do with your major in Psychology with Leadership?

JH: Yes, exactly, umm, so, I think AG would be a really good fit just because with me in general, like I love working with people, and I especially like kind of drawing out. Just helping them with you know like administrative work and what not. Umm, so my focus is, or excuse me, my passion for helping people is kind of why umm I chose psychology. And then when I found out that AG pretty much as that same focus, I was like wow, this sounds like a really good fit. So yeah, I really do think that my major does align with the MOS, the one that I’ve selected as my number one pick.

MH: And so, did your experience in ROTC and with studying leadership impact your choice of the Virtual Service Federal Service, did it impact why you chose the VA as the place you wanted to apply to?

JH: Absolutely. So, I didn’t mention this, but umm, through my experience in ROTC, I gained a really huge appreciation for veterans, and I was actually thinking sometime later down the line in my career, like, I’d like to give back to them. So, with that interest in serving the veteran community, when I came across this internship position for the VA, I thought it would be such a perfect opportunity to get my feet wet, getting started on giving back to a specific demographic that I really have a passion for. And in terms of how this all relates to my leadership sequence, umm, I took on the leadership sequence because of my enrollment in ROTC program. I’m pretty shy, umm, so it can be pretty hard for me to step up as a leader. So, since my school was offering that leadership sequence I decided to take advantage of it. I figured it would supplement, you know, my personal development, my experience in ROTC, and with this internship, I figured, yeah, of course it’s a leadership sequence because it will help me with that too. In terms of just actively communicating, getting stuff done, and I noticed with the VA internship, you know, you’re kind of not doing your own role, you’re also helping other people at the same time. So yeah, I just think that my educational background and my ROTC background really moves in kind of perfectly with this internship.

MH: Since you’re a writing intern, what have your responsibilities been so far and what does a typical week look like for you since you’re also balancing not only your school life, but ROTC and your extra leadership sequence in your major.

JH: Yeah, so my main job as a writing intern is to write a Veteran of the Day post. Umm, and essentially the purpose of those is to highlight veterans, and this is a daily thing, and show what they’ve done, how they’ve served our country which I think is really cool. Because absolutely they deserve all the recognition that they can get, so, that’s what I mainly focus on. Since this internship has just kind of started getting under way, I haven’t been doing anything a whole lot, I’ve mostly just focused on getting one mock Veteran of the Day post done, which I probably did get done. In the writing department that’s kind of the prerequisite. You get one mock Veteran of the Day post — On the side, I try to do other things, I’ve been finding — find more information, umm, ask veterans, and I know we have a Reddit page — yeah especially like right now I did start one real VOD post, and I’m trying to get that through. So yeah, that’s kind of the main responsibilities or things that I’ve been working on. In terms of how this applies to my daily life, it is really challenging I will say. ROTC and the internship, especially because like, I spend about 10 hours in ROTC and I kind of have that same amount expected for the internship. So what I’ve been trying to do is I try to spend two hours a day producing on this internship, and about like, at least 30 minutes a day for ROTC because actually as a junior in the ROTC program we have to take another class. So even before academic classes, and like ROTC, I also have an ROTC class. So yeah, it’s been kind of difficult, I’m not going to lie, I haven’t been too consistent yet with how to get my time between all these different responsibilities. But I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it soon.

MH: Yeah, I’m sure that as the semester goes on there will be more of a rhythm to develop and things. Have you ever worked on a remote project like this before?

JH: Do you specifically mean a writing project?

MH: Like have you ever worked remotely, not being able to be in the same space or office as your colleagues?

JH: Oh yeah, hahaha. Umm, so actually, this past summer, I had another internship, and it was with a non-profit called The Disaster Accountability Project, DAP. And essentially my job there, was to help with tasks related to this online donation platform called Smart Response. And the purpose of Smart Response was to help localize donations from NPO’s around the world that were focused on natural disaster relief and response. So I essentially helped the organizations, like I would reach out to them through email, and I would help them register for this online platform. Another big role of mine was to conduct research on this bipartisan bill that my director was coming up with. Essentially that bill was to help — in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I spent a lot of my time conducting research on PPE, as well as like, what kind of representatives, which representatives need first responses. We’re trying to look — we’re trying to get this bill through. And all that work I just described was conducted online, the non-profit is actually based in Maryland, but because of the pandemic, I was able to go. We pretty much did everything through Google Hangouts, Slack, which I use as well now for this internship. But yeah, it was all online, and we also used phone calls. But, yeah, working in this virtual internship now, it hasn’t been too challenging just because I’ve had that summer to get used to working on a virtual platform. And for the most part my biggest takeaway from that is as long as you’re frequently communicating, then for the most part it’s kind of smooth sailing.

MH: So, how does the team curate which veterans are going to be written about and which veteran goes on which day?

JH: Yeah, so it kind of depends like on so I’ll just start off with an example. I think currently it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, you can correct me if I’m wrong. But basically speaking, there are certain months that are dedicated to certain demographics like Women’s History Month, or African American History Month. We essentially look for veterans that fall under that specific category that’s being represented. Yeah so we look for people in that category and we start writing up posts from there. Other times we get posts submitted from the public, which is something I’m working on now. So we get post ideas from everywhere, really. But I would say those are two primary sources.

MH: And so do you have a certain goal in mind, something you want to accomplish before the end of the internship next year?

JH: Are you talking specifically about what I want to get out of this specific internship?

MH: Yeah, anything you want to learn or a certain project that you want to complete.

JH: That’s a really good question. Umm, in terms of specific projects, I haven’t really set a specific goal in mind for that yet, just because all of my efforts right now have been focused on getting used to writing up Veteran of the Day posts. But ultimately like my goal with the whole internship and I know it’s kind of general, but it’s pretty much the main reason I wanted it, was to show, or to give recognition to veterans where it’s due. And like this is just sort of giving back to the veteran community because of how they served our country which is something I’ve always wanted to do. And now, I’m doing it, and this is my opportunity to do exactly that, so. Yeah, and I mean I chose writing in particular because it’s something I’m personally passionate about, so I guess if you’re looking for a more individualized goal, it would be for me to get, or hone my writing skills, and hopefully get faster at it a bit. I’ve been pretty slow, hahaha, but it’s okay.

MH: So what do you think your interactions with veteran communities or the VA will be once this internship is over?

JH: Well definitely, I think, umm I would see a lot more interaction. Because actually, I should’ve mentioned this, in addition to getting posts related to what month it is, like if there’s a special month, or the public, you can also reach out to veterans within your community. And I’d like to do that at some point, I just haven’t been able to do that right now because I’d like to get the rhythm of this before I do that. Ideally, I’d like to reach out to some veterans that I know. There are actually a few that work on the campus, and I know a few that live in my community as well, so I’d like to reach out to them as soon as possible. I feel like I deviated from your question a bit, but do my answers kind of make sense?

MH: Yeah, yeah. We talked a little bit about the challenges of the internship, like scheduling, umm, but what are some of the positives or upsides that you’ve experienced so far?

JH: Yeah, umm, I think the biggest positive for me is that I really love what I’m doing right now. Like, being an intern at the VA is something that I’ve pretty much always wanted to do since last year, I just didn’t know of any opportunities to do it. And I didn’t come across anything until summer. Yeah so that’s like one positive, I get to do something that I’ve always wanted to do. And again, like I get to hone in on my personal interest in writing, I get to refine it which is great. Yeah, I think this experience too, it gives me more insight into our veterans experience — I get most of my information through my cabin members, and my ROTC programs, and I get additional information from the veterans I know in my community. Writing up on veterans gives me a lot more perspective on what they have done, and I think that in a way, that can you know — after I graduate, I do commission into the army, so depending on where I go, whether I go active duty, National Guard, or reserves, I think having some appreciation will help me down the line.

MH: Do you have a preference for National Guard, reserves, or active duty?

JH: I do not, at the moment, I’m actually pretty indecisive, hahaha, and I’m laughing about this because that’s something I really have to start thinking about now, and I’m still indecisive, I have been indecisive since my freshman year, and there’s a lot of benefits to those different routes. So for me, it’s been kind of a struggle, but I mean if I had to give some sort of solid response, umm, I do really want to get AG, and I know that it is a year to get the branch that you want, if you choose to join the National Guard or the reserves. Because in active duty, it’s a lot more about what the Army wants, so there’s a lot more competition involved. So right now, I’m kind of leaning towards the National Guard or reserves, I haven’t decided between those two, but that’s kind of where I’m at right now.

MH: So for your work with the VA, what drew you to the writing internship specifically? Where did your writing interest come from?

JH: Yeah, so that’s kind of hard to explain, because I’ve actually enjoyed writing. I remember as a kid I just used to write these short stories all the time, and yeah, I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just always something I’ve always loved to do, and it’s something I’ve found kind of natural to me almost. I even noticed in other subjects like math, I’m sitting there like ahh! I can’t understand a thing, hahaha. But with writing, it just makes sense. I can see what direction my words are taking, and I love communicating through words. Just writing out everything and that thought process, sometimes I’ll get writer’s block, and it’s super frustrating, but when I’m finally done, it is the most satisfying thing. Fun fact actually, I used to be a Psychology-Literature dual major, and I chose Literature because I love writing, and I mean in addition to writing I love reading, so that’s why I wanted to pick that, but I ended up not doing because it was a lot of work and I realized, having another major, Literature, is a lot more intensive than – it’s just better to have it as a hobby, rather than a field of study. So anyways, that all being said, umm, my interest in writing, I know I mentioned that a lot, that’s really like my guiding force. That’s kind of what led me to seek out this writing internship in particular.

MH: It sounds like the writing internship is a consolidation of all your interests with military service and with literature. So what is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned in your college experience so far, whether that’s through your ROTC program or your Psychology major, or the extra internship experiences you’ve had?

JH: So it can just be any unexpected thing in general? Sorry.

MH: Yeah, just something that you didn’t know before, something you didn’t expect to learn, something you were surprised by?

JH: Oooh geez. Something unexpected, um.

MH: It can also be something you’ve learned about yourself.

JH: Yeah, I think something that I learned was that, so okay, I’ll put it this way. I chose to go — this is so interrelated but another reason I chose to join ROTC and also be a Psychology major. This was back in senior year of high school, I thought I wanted to be a military psychologist actually. Because helping people and at the time that was when I developed an interest in veteran community. Umm, I was like, you know what, being a military psychologist would combine all these interests I have. But when I went into college, I realized that umm, well, don’t get me wrong umm, essentially I learned that as much as I love helping people, I’m not sure if being a psychologist would be the right way to go. Throughout my college experience, I kind of realized that I am not too terribly dedicated and involved in the psychology field as much as I thought. Which at first I was a little bit freaked out by, I was like oh my gosh, maybe I chose the wrong major, but then I realized, no, this field is a lot more flexible than that. So, if I had to summarize this essentially, it’s not for me, being a psychology major doesn’t mean I immediately have to be — I’m actually looking at, I’m definitely planning on getting my Master’s. But if I had to get my Master’s, it would probably focus on Emergency Management, Disaster, just along the lines of that.

MH: And would you try to get an educational delay to do that, or would you try to do that while serving?

JH: Umm, I would probably try to do it while serving. So, if I were to try to join the National Guard, because I looked more into how this would work in the National Guard versus active duty, though I will say all the different routes do support getting a higher education. But if you choose National Guard, and with that, training is part-time, so you’re kind of expected to work a civilian job, which is fine. But the cool thing about the National Guard is that they will help you pay for graduate school, and this kind of varies on what state you’re in, but essentially yeah, they would help you with that. Did I answer all your questions? I feel like I didn’t.

MH: I think so. I’m wondering, if you do end up going the National Guard or reserves route, what would you want your ideal civilian career to be?

JH: That’s kind of a looming question for me, because I’m not terribly sure. But I do know that I want a business or I want to be part of an organization that focuses on helping people, either that or just working in some psychology related research lab. I actually didn’t know that was an option for undergraduate students until recently, so, it’s either of the two. And I know it’s pretty broad, but it’s because I’m really not sure what I’m going to do and I’m sure that’s a struggle that a lot of college students can relate to.

MH: Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people are especially now when the future kind of seems more uncertain than usual. Can we talk more about your experience in the neuroscience lab?

JH: Yeah sure, so I worked in the neuroscience lab from fall semester of last year up until spring semester. And I chose that because one, my academic advisor was leading that, and two, I figured like, you know what, I want to get some lab research experience. That’s when I stuck with it. And in the neuroscience lab, essentially what we did is that we were examining how neurons would respond to certain stimuli and the stimuli were just these dots on a screen. And those dots vaguely resembled a human. And these dots moved around so it looked like a human was moving around. And essentially, you know, participants would look at that, and we would kind of examine I believe their neurons responsiveness, umm, and what I did mostly was we had those little caps, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. You get this cap and there’s a bunch of wires hanging out of it. And that’s like to measure your neural activity. My main job was to help with that, just putting on the cap, getting this experiment done. I also helped with — because sometimes, or a lot of times, when we get back results there would be a lot of noise, and that’s not good data. So, I would just you know get rid of any noise and I would find — I only worked there for a semester and that’s pretty short. Normally on my campus, a research position is about a year long, and the only reason it didn’t last this long for me is because I realized it really wasn’t for me. So, yeah.

MH: It sounds like college so far has been a process for you of determining what you do and don’t want to do. I’m wondering, when are the times you feel the spark that you are absolutely sure that this is what you want to do?

JH: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. College right now, and I guess this is another thing I didn’t expect. I felt like, or when I first came in, I thought I knew what I was going to do. I told myself, I’m going to do whatever it takes to become a psychologist, and it turns out that’s not really the case, as you can tell by me dropping out of an actual lab. But if I felt the spark with anything, it’s always been with ROTC. There are definitely a lot of times where I thought about quitting just because it does get stressful, but I stuck with it, and as I’m progressing through, because — I also spent time working at a student cafe which I also realized wasn’t really ideal for me. I’ve come to realize that I would like to focus on positions that give more on maybe mentoring. I haven’t come across anything just because there’s a pandemic going on, there’s been delays on organizations on campus. But nonetheless, I’m still looking out for applications for that.

MH: So you mentioned that you started in JROTC in high school, so how did you know that you wanted to continue that program at the college level?

JH: Yeah, so originally I wasn’t really interested in the JROTC program, but I fell in love with it through the camaraderie. I made a lot of friends through that program. And I realized, being in that program has also forced me to get out of my shell. That’s a really big weakness of mine, I realized. And that’s something that I really want to work on. And even though I had 3 years of JROTC experience I knew that I still had a lot that I wanted to work on personally. I wanted to challenge myself to talk with other people because I’m very introverted and I don’t really like talking to people. But yeah, it’s really that personal that drove me to continue with ROTC.

MH: Yeah, you mentioned that ROTC has helped you develop personal character. Can you give some examples?

JH: Yeah absolutely, I feel like the biggest takeaway from that program is just trying your best. With me, I’m really a perfectionist by nature. I get pretty upset easily if I work hard on something and it doesn’t turn out the way I want it to. But I’ve come to realize that that’s not really a good mindset to have — and for me, that’s something that I’ve had to kind of come to terms with, with ROTC, because quite frankly, I feel like I have been struggling with a lot of things in the program, for example land navigation that’s a big part, I’m not the best at it, I struggle with it. Physical fitness, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the Army has transitioned to a new physical fitness test. So originally it was called the APFT, but this new one is called the ACFT, which stands for Army Combat — it’s just a lot more involved, it’s a lot more strength focused, which is something I need to work on, because for me my strength has always been cardio and core. And I actually as an MS-3 in the ROTC program you’ll get tested a lot on all these different aspects. It’s been pretty stressful you know preparing for those assessments, but at the same time, I tell myself you know if you try your best, well one, the results are going to come in more naturally right? And I mean if you don’t make it, it’s okay, you did what you could. You can’t say you didn’t do anymore than you could’ve done. So that’s a big takeaway of mine, and I guess another thing just really quickly because I know I’ve been talking for a while. Umm, is just not being afraid to be vulnerable with people, because I feel like especially the ROTC program, there’s a lot of focus on, like go on your own, it’s okay to you know, put yourself out there, like make yourself look the best you can be, but at the same time, I think you really get to connect with the people if you express some vulnerability. If you say like oh, I’m not feeling the best today, or like I’m really struggling with this, because the program’s really hard, and it’s mentally challenging. And I think most people realize, not just in ROTC but in general, that like certain things aren’t going to be easy and it’s okay to admit that it’s not. But as long as you keep working through it, then things will turn out okay.

MH: And how are you passing on the lessons that you’ve learned to the MS-1’s and 2’s especially now that you guys are remote?

JH: Yeah, so, actually before things went remote, I did work with one cadet specifically in physical fitness because that was something that she struggled with. So what I would do is I would work out with her, I would guide her through a workout. Like I would make a plan and I would make her go through it every week. I would also just kind of keep in touch with the MS-1’s and 2’s — and a lot of the times they kind of want to give up and I just kind of encourage them informally. But sometimes if they need counseling or they just need someone to talk to I’m there for them. With remote, actually, we just made a Snapchat group, and we kind of support each other through there. But we have one cadet, — we keep in touch we’re trying to figure out a way for us to workout together. But we haven’t been able to do that actually because she has just bounced back from having covid. Yeah she got covid, that really sucked, I felt so bad for her. But yeah, she’s better now, thank god. I think she lives in Nevada, she just moved down here to California, so hopefully I get to hang out with her soon. For ROTC, we’re going to start having in-person labs pretty soon, which kind of sucks a little bit, but you know what, training is training, and I’m expecting social distancing guidelines and everything else to be observed so yeah.

MH: Alright, is there anything else that you wanted to talk about today that we haven’t covered?

JH: Umm, no I think I pretty much covered all of my bases. I mean unless you have other questions.

MH: No, I really enjoyed our conversation though, and I learned a lot.

JH: Oh yeah? Hahaha, oh my gosh, I kind of went into this interview like I feel like I don’t do a whole lot, I feel like I’ve been jumping around a lot in my activities, and that was something I was kind of afraid to talk about. Like oh my gosh, I’ll look like I’m so inconsistent. But you know what, that’s just learning. Okay, just sometimes, you really don’t know, or you realize you don’t know what you want to do. And that’s fine.

MH: I feel like a lot of the other interns will be able to relate to the idea that college is a process of elimination.

JH: Yup, that’s the truth. That’s the tea.

MH: Alright, well those are all the questions I had for you so, I know it’s bright and early where you are.

JH: Eh, it’s okay. I usually have class at this time, but I mean it’s Thursday so obviously that’s not the case. I appreciate your time.

MH: Do you still have to get up at 5 for ROTC stuff?

JH: Eh, no. Like I said, ROTC has changed the program a bit to be more flexible. So we just work out whenever it’s most convenient for us.

MH: So you’re going to have to start getting up really early soon though when you do the in person labs, right?

JH: Yeah, but that’s only on Fridays. So we only workout three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. I would probably have to worry about Friday just because I actually have to drive to get to labs, and on top of that I also have a class, but ehh, I’ll figure it out. It’s not a big deal.

MH: Yeah, I believe in you.

JH: Thank you, I appreciate it.

MH: Alright well that’s all I have. I’ll let you go now. Thanks for talking to me!

JH: Thank you, it was so nice talking to you, take care.

MH: Bye!

JH: Bye!