University of Tulsa student-veteran Kate Tillotson has been named the Student Veterans of America Student Veteran of the Year. She was recognized at the organization’s 2017 conference in Anaheim, California, where TU Student Veteran Association members attended for the first time since the group’s establishment in 2009.
Tillotson served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps before taking on a new mission: earning a college degree. Since arriving at TU in the fall of 2014, she has rejuvenated the Student Veteran Association as chapter president and inspired fellow veterans to get involved on campus and in the community.
“Veterans make up 23 percent of the education economy in Oklahoma,” she said. “I want veterans to know you can come here, because TU is an amazing school.”
According to Tillotson, 80 veterans attend TU, and 55 students are active SVA members. With support from other TU student organizations and grants, her leadership has contributed to the SVA’s significant progress to connect fellow veterans and develop a closer relationship with civilian students.
“We’re very proud of all our veterans,” said TU Provost Roger Blais. “We owe them a lot as a nation, and they bring to the classroom the technical experience and commitment to be successful.”
Tillotson, who is the only SVA female president in Oklahoma, was nominated for Student Veteran of the Year by the TU chapter and competed against representatives from larger universities with veteran populations of more than 2,000. TU SVA is one of the largest student organizations at TU and has one of the highest membership retention and engagement rates among SVA chapters nationwide. The group has experienced significant growth and civilian engagement, attracting many members whom other chapters struggle to retain throughout the semester. Tillotson said TU SVA goes the extra mile to accommodate service members and their families.
“Being a veteran is part of our identity, but that’s not the whole picture,” she said. “It’s about getting rid of the stereotype that we are exclusionary. We want to foster a campus culture that promotes veterans’ success and job placement.”
TU SVA often collaborates with a group of southern region universities known as SVA South and works closely with TU groups such as the Association of Black Collegians. In 2016, TU was one of 50 colleges nationwide to receive the Vet Center Initiative Grant of almost $9,000 from the Home Depot Foundation and the Student Veterans of America to renovate the university’s veterans’ campus lounge. The TU Veterans House, an on-campus multipurpose resource center managed by student veterans, is supported by campus organizations and the Department of Veteran Affairs and provides students with community resources and benefits. Also, free tuition is available to qualified students through the Yellow Ribbon Program, an extension of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“Obtaining a college education and using your VA benefits to do so is an amazing deal,” Tillotson said. “TU does a great job of taking care of its community. The president of the university is a veteran, and that’s huge for me.”
Tillotson also credits TU staff members such as Associate Registrar Cindy Watts, TU’s VA certifying official, for ensuring a positive student-veteran experience. “She takes care of every veteran we have,” she said. “Cindy embodies that sense of TU community.”
The 28-year-old speech-pathology major joined the Marines in 2007 with the encouragement of her father, who served in the U.S. Army. As a Marine, Tillotson was a field radio operator at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and completed a nine-month deployment in Iraq. When she arrived at TU, Tillotson said she recognized the SVA’s potential to make a difference in the lives of fellow veterans.
“A lot of our members are parents who can benefit from interaction with other adults who understand experiences on a similar level,” she said. “Veterans have multiple parts of their identity that come from serving in the military.”
TU SVA is planning several events that foster community engagement and professional development. Tillotson hopes to continue the group’s momentum and promote TU’s veteran-friendly environment.