If TU student Kate Tillotson was surprised to have been nominated for the Student Veteran of the Year Award, one can only imagine her reaction when she won, beating out the competition of 1,300 SVA chapters nationwide. This is not to say she didn’t deserve it. Tillotson has been credited with revitalizing TU’s Student Veteran Association which, upon her joining, had a decent attendance of about 10-15 veterans. The organization’s events were often limited to monthly luncheons. Tillotson, after being elected president of the organization, was motivated to do things differently. This was in part due to her desire for more diversity in the group, herself being the only female member. The association used social media, digital signage and flyers to advertise a tailgating event, which successfully drew in over 55 veterans. When that happened, Tillotson said, she realized the potential the VSA had. “Let’s do something no other veteran organization in Oklahoma is doing — something for millennial veterans that’s actually fun and social. If we’re going to do stuff on campus as a group, we should go big or go home.”
This incentive would be paired with Tillotson’s mission to reach out not only to veterans on campus, but in the greater community of Tulsa. Early on Tillotson noticed that the organizations that existed to help veterans were mostly intended for the homeless or Vietnam-Era veterans, not post 9/11-Era veterans. “It’s great to have organizations serving those populations,” she said, but “as a generation that has known nothing but war-time we have a lot of unpacking to do and that’s difficult to do when you’re doing it alone.” The association soon decided to host their off-campus events in a way where millennial veterans, regardless of their level of education, could attend. “Slowly but surely, veterans from all corners of Tulsa started to trickle in. We have veterans who work within the VA or attend other institutions such as Spartan that come out and get a chance to socialize with other veterans. Spouses and significant others are the heartbeat of our group. When they feel welcome they bring their families and their veteran with them…My group is a very close knit family in a way.”
The groups come a long way since their humble beginnings; these days, some of the organization’s events gather a crowd numbering over a hundred, and they have yet to host an event with under 25 attendees.
Tillotson doesn’t take all the credit, of course. Besides her coworkers in the organization she named faculty advisor Cindy Watts as an essential part of TU’s support system for veterans. Watts sees every veteran who comes in, offering them a warm welcome into the SVA, and helps the association by spreading news word-of-mouth.
Outside the organization, Tillotson is pursuing a major in speech-language pathology. She admits that, in the beginning, job security played no small part in her decision to pursue SLP, but now, she views it as a fulfilling career. “The further I got into my studies is when I realized that I could work with adults and veterans. Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, is common within the veterans who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of those veterans come back dealing with the unseen wounds of war on top of having issues communicating. Being able to help someone get a piece of their life back is why I’m passionate about the veteran community and it’s the same with speech-language pathology.”
In response to a question addressing any possible improvements to educational aid for veterans across the nation, not just at TU, Tillotson emphasized “academic accommodations” as the “first hurdle and often the most impactful one.” Oftentimes, she noted, school officials ignorant of disability laws often refuse aid to veterans on the grounds that their federal disability paperwork or medical documentation isn’t enough. “The veteran they’re turning away,” she says, “or making the process unnecessarily burdensome for is the same person who had to watch their buddy die in a war zone, or had their convoy blown up by an IED or was sexually assaulted on the job. There’s nothing more disheartening for a veteran than reaching out for help and not being taken seriously.”
To conclude, Tillotson invited any interested TU students, civilians included, to become involved in the organization simply by showing up to some of the events. “We’re not as mean as the stereotypes would have you believe,” she joked. “Just because we’re veterans doesn’t mean we’re sitting around telling war stories all time. We’re not the stereotypical angry veteran crowd. We’re friendly, we’re funny and we’re very accepting of new people.”
The Student Veteran Association will be having an Open House event in February, and all are encouraged to attend.