The military-affiliated graduate students will pursue degrees in international space policy and translational health sciences.
By Briahnna Brown
Two George Washington University student veterans were named Tillman Scholars this year: Drew Garza, an Army veteran, and Emily Balog, an Air Force veteran.
Mr. Garza is pursuing a master of arts in international science and technology policy through the Space Policy Institute in the Elliott School of International Affairs, and Mrs. Balog is pursuing a Ph.D. in translational health sciences from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Andrew Sonn, the director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services, said that there was a competitive pool of applicants for this scholarship. Mr. Garza and Mrs. Balog stood out because of the way they linked their academic and career goals to serving others.
“GW's applicants show a firm commitment to serving the country and their local communities while being strong scholars committed to using their education to help others and our country,” Dr. Sonn said.
"GW has, over the last three years, had among the most Tillman Scholars of any university in the country,” he added. “It is emblematic of the amazing service members who attend GW."
The Tillman Scholars program supports military-affiliated students through academic scholarships and opportunities for professional development. The program is sponsored by the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was established in 2004 after Mr. Tillman, who put his NFL career on hold to serve in the U.S. Army in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was killed on tour in Afghanistan two years later.
This year’s class, which is the 10th cohort of Tillman Scholars, will receive more than $1.3 million in scholarships to pursue degree programs in a variety of fields. GW is one of 15 university partners of the program.
Mr. Garza, said his love for space began as a child in Laredo, Texas, when a doctor gave him a NASA press kit that contained glossy, high resolution photos of Earth and the space shuttle. He would stare at these photos for hours and fiercely protected them to ensure they were never creased or bent.
He knew from a young age that he wanted to do something space related, and now, as a program manager at NASA, he’s beginning to fulfill that childhood dream. He plans to use the degree he will earn from GW to further his career at an office that addresses space policy as a public service.
Learning about the driving forces behind the space missions that are chosen, the national security aspect of space policy and its effect on global humanitarian needs, and how the United States interacts with space efforts across the globe, take his fascination with space a step further, Mr. Garza said. He added that he is excited to be at the forefront of this rapidly changing industry.
“I always make the joke whenever I give a presentation that, yes, I have chosen the absolute most boring part of space operations,” Mr. Garza said. “But it really is becoming really fascinating, especially at the national level.”
The honor of being selected as a Tillman Scholar is still sinking in for Mr. Garza. Mr. Tillman embodied the Army value of selfless service, Mr. Garza explained, and it is inspiring for him to be a part of that community. Mr. Tillman had been a military hero to Mr. Garza even before he knew about the foundation, and he hopes to embody Tillman’s spirit of service.
“I'm just hoping to make the foundation proud, and to use the resources that will be available to me to become a leader in my field,” Mr. Garza said.
Mrs. Balog, a geriatric occupational therapist from Stratford, N.J., has been a practicing clinician for over a decade. She said that she was propelled to pursue a doctorate in translational health sciences after her mother’s passing from sudden-onset cancer two years ago.
She experienced the health care system as a family member rather than a clinician as she usually did, which she said opened her eyes to the good and the bad in the health care system and motivated her to contribute to the research world.
“I really took a step back and thought about how I want to continue to contribute to society, what I want my children to see in me, and how I can connect communities across the lifespan,” Mrs. Balog said.
“I knew that I needed to give back in some other way using what I’ve learned as a clinician,” she continued. “My mom’s death showed me that there is so much life to live; it just kind of lit a fire in me.”
She began volunteering with veteran organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) and saw how the older and younger veterans can build connections. She also saw the barriers the elderly face in accessing necessary resources in health care, such as health literacy and technological barriers.
As a Tillman Scholar at GW, Mrs. Balog plans to research ways to mend that gap and make a difference in the ways the senior community can connect with the resources available so they can successfully age in their own homes.
“They work hard their whole entire lives, and they deserve to have a comfortable and healthful and successful life,” Mrs. Balog said of the elderly. “[They deserve] to continue to contribute to society and not be cast off in a nursing home or a place where they aren't contributing to society.
“I believe this can be accomplished with a connected community that supports this aging in place process,” she said.