Two George Washington University students who are passionate about improving public health resources for vulnerable populations have been named part of the 2023 class of the Tillman Military Scholars by the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Orain Edwards, an Air Force veteran and a master of public health student, and Zachary McKenna, a Marine reservist who is studying nursing at GW, are the recipients of the hard-earned scholarship.
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 Pat Tillman, who put his NFL career on hold to serve in the U.S. Army in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks, was killed on tour in Afghanistan two years later.
GW is one of 16 university partners within the Tillman organization—a designation awarded based on an institution’s veteran-specific services and supportive culture. GW students received two of the 60 scholarships awarded this year.
Andrew Sonn, the assistant dean of students for student support and military services at GW, said the university is proud to be a Pat Tillman Foundation institutional partner.
“Since 2013, over 20 GW students from varied disciplines have been named Tillman Scholars,” Sonn said. “They have been part of this talented, accomplished cohort of service members, scholars and leaders. Orain and Zachary represent individuals who have served our country and will continue to serve global, national, regional and local communities after they graduate from GW.”
Edwards had an interest in public health advocacy from a young age. As a teen in Jamaica, Edwards was a strong believer in spreading information about the importance of reproductive rights and protection against sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. He worked with vulnerable populations such as commercial sex workers, traveled the world to advocate for human rights and lobbied on Capitol Hill to get global funding for reproductive health and rights.
He moved to the United States in 2012 and joined the Air Force in 2017.
“I felt like I wanted to do more and give back to the country that gave me a second lease on life,” Edwards said. “There was a sense of pride, belonging and a strong sense of patriotism. I didn't want to leave this earth not having accomplished that portion of my journey in terms of giving back to society. To me, that's the highest form of giving back. I wanted to ensure that I did my duty as a human being and as an American.”
His experience in the Air Force encouraged Edwards to expand his thinking on global health to include health security. While researching the impact of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Edwards learned how UN peacekeepers sent to help in these countries ended up sexually assaulting many women and children.
“You’re trying to do something good, but you're making the situation worse,” Edwards said. “I was in the United States Air Force. I'm a veteran. I wanted to take that military experience and marry it with my passion for reproductive health to see how I can not only impact policies and practices but also create a safer environment and create a more sustainable future for our young people.”
The Tillman Scholarship will help Edwards further these goals by allowing him to collaborate with other talented scholars.
“One of the great things about this scholarship is that you are now part of a lifelong community that opens your network and allows for collaboration,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of doctors in my cohort, and there are a lot of other individuals who are doing research on or doing work in security and health.”
McKenna echoed similar sentiments, saying the most exciting aspect of being awarded this scholarship is joining a network of talented people working to make a positive impact on the world.
“The anticipated effect is going to be getting to access inspiring people that are also trying to make a great impact in the world,” McKenna said. “Just by being part of that team, I think I'll have a greater impact in the ways that I want to change the world.”
The biggest lesson McKenna has learned since enlisting is how much more one can accomplish when working with others.
“Good teams can create a bigger impact than any individual,” McKenna said. “It takes a massive team to land that Osprey in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, going on a boat that's [moving] 40 knots and an aircraft that's going 200 knots. To safely bring that down and launch, requires massive teams.”
McKenna’s goal is to continue to help others, now on a team as a healthcare worker. After graduation, he hopes to become a midwife.
His interest in entering the labor and delivery field began after hearing stories of the challenges many women in the United States face while giving birth. He began doing research, which led to him learning about the impact midwives and doulas can have on a positive birth experience.
“Eventually, one of my peers asked me to be their doula, which I thought was crazy,” McKenna said. “But the stars aligned, and I served in that role for other people that were just asking for help. And it's changed my life. Experiencing birth changed my life.”
He hopes to use this opportunity of being accepted into the Tillman network to collaborate with knowledgeable individuals to find solutions to make childbirth safer for families in the United States.
“The magic of flying was cool, but the magic of birth was far more impactful to me,” McKenna said. “So I've just been following that path and hopefully will be able to continue helping people.”