Single mother to a teenage son, Leah McGowan, 29, has achieved success as a First Lt. in the National Guard and in May received her master’s degree in social work and was presented with CSUN’s First Outstanding Graduating Veteran Award.
With all of the obstacles she has had to overcome, friends and family always knew McGowan would be successful.
Long time friend, Apphia Taylor said she holds McGowan in high regard because she’s been able to juggle being a single parent, working two jobs, going to school and fulfilling her duties in the National Guard.
“She is a modern day super woman,” Taylor said. “I’m very proud of her. She’s overcome a lot to get where she is.”
McGowan is still not quite sure how she feels about it all.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, it doesn’t feel quite real,” McGowan said.
Social work is more than just a career choice for McGowan, she said.
“My mother got her bachelor’s degree in social work,” McGowan said. “I kind of knew at a pretty young age that I definitely wanted to be in something in the mental health realm where I’m able to help people.”
As for receiving the award for outstanding veteran, she said she wasn’t sure she qualified for such a distinction but after seeing the posters around campus and being prompted by professors she applied for the award.
“I really didn’t think that I would be chosen,” she said. ” There were five other outstanding veterans that have been deployed that are double majors so it was a tough competition.”
For four years, McGowan has worked at the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs. She has provided social services to homeless veterans at the facility but now she is able to put her master’s degree to use after three years in the program, she said.
“I plan to move up into conducting social work and a little bit more advance practice with the VA,” McGowan said.
McGowan grew up in the city of Lancaster where her parents still reside. As a single parent to a 16-year-old son, McGowan understands not only the helping of others but she has been on the receiving end of it.
“I’ve benefited from a lot of resources in the community and I just wanted to give back and be able to help out other people,” she said.
McGowan said she credits professors and superiors in the service for making her journey a little easier.
“They were really understanding and as flexible as they could be when I had to go off for weeks at a time to do missions,” McGowan said. “They would allow me to turn in papers early or do what I had to do to make up classes that I had to miss. So it was an additional challenge but I was lucky to have the support from my social work department.”
McGowan said her family, particularly her parents, have been on her side, providing additional support she needed to keep moving forward with her goals.
“My dad’s an Air Force veteran so he kind of spearheaded the whole military campaign,” McGowan said. “My dad’s really proud, it’s always something he wanted for me, especially the officer thing.”
McGowan’s achievements have inspired her mother to further one of her own goals, she said.
“My mother is extremely proud,” she added. “Watching me graduate has encouraged her to go back and try to get her master’s in social work.”
There were hardly words to express how proud McGowan’s mother, Virginia McGowan, was of her daughter.
“I’m all choked up,” her mother said. “She’s really been a studying child all her days.”
As an officer in the National Guard, McGowan will also move to incorporate social work in her military status, she said.
“I hope to become an Army social worker so I can do more mental health screening for the soldiers that are about to deploy in the National Guard,” McGowan said. “Then also get involved in the policy side and really working on the stigma of mental health in the military and really getting involved in changing some of the policies and making mental health bigger in the military.”
Still motivated from after receiving the award and getting her master’s degree, McGowan said she is now looking forward to some quality time with her son and ensuring his continued success.
“He needs her right now,” her mother added. “She’s been giving a lot to her studies. They need a break together.”
McGowan has accomplished many of her goals, she said. Since the demands of school are gone for now, McGowan said it’s time to shift her focus to her son, LeJon.
“I look forward to being a more active parent this coming year,” McGowan said. “He’s pretty focused on education as it is but I think that was a good experience for him to come to the graduation and see mom get her masters.”