August 22 at 11:30am

A Very Long Journey

To say that Rob Heinlein’s path to a masters degree in social work was a long one would be a vast understatement. The veterans’ client advocate for Veterans Assistance of San Diego (vasd.org) surmounted plenty of obstacles and made a few changes of direction en route to that accomplishment. “I graduated May 17 (from San Diego State). On the 13th, I celebrated 18 years of sobriety, which I would call a pretty good week,” said Heinlein, 64. “It was a very long journey.” That journey began with a childhood in the beach cities of Los Angeles where he learned early to surf and to drink. Struggles with school followed, as did the use of drugs. Heinlein managed to hold down jobs in construction and the restaurant business for a while, but 30 years of escalating substance abuse eventually took its toll. “I became unemployable,” he said. “I lived on the streets for three-and-a-half years.”

An intervention by his brother-inlaw got him to an inpatient treatment program in Hemet, where with some hard work, Heinlein gained his sobriety. Using his experiences to help others, Heinlein managed a sober living facility in San Jacinto, and went through another treatment program in Riverside County as an example to clients in the residence. There, one of the interns suggested to Heinlein that he had “more to offer” than what he was doing and suggested he go to college. That was advice Heinlein took seriously. He found the courage to overcome fears that he was too old and that he didn’t have what it takes to succeed in college and enrolled at Mt. San Jacinto College. Combining work and school, he completed in three years a degree in alcohol and drug studies.

His next stop was Cal State San Marcos, from which he graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in human development with an emphasis on counseling. He began a master’s program at San Diego State, but fell short academically, leading him to take jobs with a variety of nonprofit organizations. Plans to return to school were temporarily sidetracked when he was hired at VASD, a division of Interfaith Community Services, in 2006, just in time to help open Merle’s Place, the transitional housing program for veterans in Escondido. Later he was involved in creating the veterans housing program in Oceanside. “How many times do you get the chance to start two new programs? That far outweighs going back to school,” Heinlein said. “School will always be there.” In his case, that was true. Heinlein returned to San Diego State in 2009, attending classes while working full-time at VASD and completing an internship at Tri-City Medical Center. He also overcame family tragedies, the deaths of both his mother and brother in 2012, and a learning disability en route to earning his degree. Heinlein’s colleagues were impressed with his accomplishment.

I’m just in awe. I don’t know how he’s managed to do it. He never gives up. I don’t think life comes easy to him as far as school is concerned, but he did it. If anyone deserved this, Rob did.

“I’m just in awe. I don’t know how he’s managed to do it,” said Johnina Noar, program coordinator for VASD. “He never gives up. I don’t think life comes easy to him as far as school is concerned, but he did it. If anyone deserved this, Rob did.” Even after a pair of trips to Costa Rica and Hawaii, Heinlein isn’t so sure himself how he completed such a difficult academic journey. “It still hasn’t sunk in,” he said. “Basically I was sitting on a beach in Hawaii asking ‘How did I do this?’ … There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment, but I also have a sense that there is more to do.” Heinlein plans to obtain his licensed clinical social worker credential, with the goal of becoming a therapist. He wants to help other people change their lives, as others helped him. “Being available to assist others is a real privilege as a human being,” he said. “Most people don’t get that opportunity.”