ONE HAD TO GET HIS PARENTS TO SIGN so he could enlist in the Marine Corps when he was just 17. Another joined the Marines after being inspired by the legend of an ancient Hindu warrior. And a Gold Star spouse is finding ways to help others get through the kind of trauma she endured after her husband, an Air Force pilot, was killed in a crash.

These are among the eight Pat Tillman Scholars enrolled at Harvard University this year, bringing to 41 the total number of U.S. military service members, veterans, and spouses at Harvard who have earned the prestigious scholarship since 2008. Harvard has had more Tillman Scholars than any other university, including two currently at Harvard Law School, Nathan Jester and Carl Min.

Harvard Kennedy School counts five current Tillman Scholars—more than any other graduate school in the country in this year’s roster of 60. These students, some of whom are doing joint degrees with HBS, MIT, or Stanford, receive $10,000 per year, but they all say the money pales beside the support they receive from the Pat Tillman Foundation community. The foundation honors the memory of Pat Tillman—who left an NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals after the 9/11 attacks to join the Army and served several combat tours until his death in action in Afghanistan.

The Tillman Foundation has awarded 635 scholarships in total to students at 100 universities. The selection rate is just 2.5 percent—more selective than Harvard. To Dan Futrell MPP 2011, the chief executive officer of the Tillman Foundation who came to HKS after serving as an Army Ranger infantry officer, it’s no surprise that the Kennedy School has had a total of 15 Tillman Scholars over the past 10 years. After all, the School’s mission is about public service.

“The reason is because we share the same values of service above self,” Futrell said. “That’s what draws applicants to the Kennedy School. The same thing holds true for the Tillman scholar community. They have shown through lived experience and through their communicated ambitions for the future how they have and will put service above self in their lives. That’s not a coincidence.”

Here are short profiles of the five current HKS Tillman scholars and reflections, in their own words, on their service and their aspirations. (Another 2019 Tillman scholar, former Army Special Forces Officer Adam Swartzbaugh MPP 2021, is pursuing an MBA at MIT this year and will be at HKS next year.)

 

Syed Faraz MPP/Stanford MBA 2022, Zuckerman Fellow

Raised in a Muslim family in India and Saudi Arabia, Faraz immigrated to the United States when he was 12. His parents worked blue-collar jobs to support the family. At the University of Texas-Arlington, he was a “short-haired hippie,” active in Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and protesting the Iraq War. Then a family friend introduced him to the military community, and he felt the call to serve, joining the Air Force in 2011.  As a navigator, Faraz flew more than 630 combat hours, played a crucial role in the Obama-directed rescue of 40,000 Yazidis in Syria, and led a campaign to deliver aid to 1,600 earthquake survivors. In his final three years, he worked on national security innovation as the chief technology officer for the U-2 spy-plane community. By pursuing an MPP/MBA, Faraz intends to build bridges between private and public sector innovators to enhance American leadership on the global stage.

Faraz is the highest-flying aviator of Muslim heritage (besides astronauts), and summited Kilimanjaro with his wife for their honeymoon. Their first child was born in September, and the Tillman Foundation sent them a Pat Tillman onesie. He will study in Cambridge this year, at Stanford next year, and then split his studies in the third year.

Reflections:

“Each stage in the Air Force was hard, but it was great. I still remember fondly those days because of the people that I was with. And it was an incredible time of growth because one of the things they teach you here at the Kennedy School is that growth and learning only come from discomfort, and the Air Force and the military in general definitely make you uncomfortable.”

“I was focused so much on performance that my attitude was suffering. And what I learned was that in the Air Force we say attitude is altitude. Attitude not only means your mindset; in aviation, attitude means the pitch of your aircraft. So a nose-down attitude means you’re about to hit the ground soon or you’re descending, and nose-up attitude means you’re climbing. Not only is that true in aviation, it’s also true in real life. If your attitude is nose up, you’re positive. Most people will be on your side.”

“I love that it’s called the Kennedy School. I love that we’re surrounded by quotes from JFK because it’s really not about what you can take from society. It’s about what you can offer to society.”

David Laszcz MPP 2020

His family was displaced for three years and his father, a Polish immigrant, lost his job in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after Hurricane Rita struck in 2005. They struggled for years. Laszcz had to persuade his parents to let him enlist in the Marines in 2010 before he turned 18, just as he finished high school with a 2.4 GPA. He was deployed to Jordan amid Arab Spring tensions, was promoted to sergeant, and earned an appointment to the Naval Academy in 2014, one of a handful of enlisted Marines in his class. Laszcz plunged into economics study there, spent a summer at the London School of Economics, and was assigned to the Council of Economic Advisors. In 2017, during his junior year at the academy, he won a prestigious Truman Scholarship. He is attending HKS while on active duty and hopes for an infantry unit posting after graduating.

Reflections:

I was intimidated [at the Naval Academy] because I was literally surrounded by the smartest people, and I was four years removed from any kind of education. My classmates didn’t have that fear. They were valedictorians; they took all these high-level courses, so graduation wasn’t a question. The question for them was can they hack the military lifestyle and culture: ‘How do I prepare myself to one day lead Marines and sailors into harm’s way and to protect them or prevent them from going into harm’s way?’ So where I lacked, they had strengths and where they lacked, I had strengths.”

Once I got to Navy, I realized that this is my only shot. For all the enlisted Marines I grew up with, I told myself that they deserve better than what we had. I told myself that my family deserves better than what I had. And I knew that was my only shot. I wanted to come [to HKS] to be a better officer because the enlisted men and women deserve a good officer. Once I leave Harvard, I hope to go back into the infantry community and get back on the ground. I think the best way to really show and exercise leadership is in the trenches on the ground, like in the thick of it. And to me that is what an infantry Marine is.”

“My family struggled severely after the storm with mental health and it’s been an increasing problem in the military—I have lost twice as many friends to mental health than to the War on Terror. For our HKS policy analysis exercise, we’re trying to increase the voluntary uptake on mental health counseling in the Navy by designing policies with economics and decision science. I feel this is the most direct way to leverage my education to create and implement policies to save lives in the Navy. Because now that that we’re not really in war, the war we have is within ourselves.”

Ashley Whitlock MC/MPA 2020

After growing up in a Savannah, Georgia, suburb, Ashley Whitlock went to Mercer University in Macon, where she met her future husband, Nick Whitlock. She supported his passion for flying and his decision to enlist in the Air Force. After officer training school, he was selected for the U-28A flight program and joined a Special Operations Squadron. He logged 800 combat hours; on his fifth deployment, Nick Whitlock was killed when his plane went down near his base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Whitlock struggled to cope, moving from their home in Florida to Atlanta, and then to Washington. She launched the Whitlock Foundation in Nick’s memory to support service-minded young people with scholarships and veterans through community. At HKS, she is imagining a future service career that lets her use her own journey through loss to help other Gold Star families and other survivors of trauma.

Reflections:

“When Nick joined the Air Force, I joined with him, and it was part of our collective goal and aspiration. I did have my own job, but that’s how I thought about my opportunity to help serve as his wife, collectively supporting this endeavor with him. That’s what for me was the most challenging part of losing him. I lost the future we had imagined together.

“And so coming out of that experience, thinking about how to rebuild a new vision for myself that didn’t lose our history together was an important part of my journey to the Kennedy school, with much support, financial and emotional, from the Pat Tillman Foundation. And that’s been difficult for me up until this point. I’ve kind of kept personal and private very separate. And I think one of the unique elements of both the Kennedy School and the Pat Tillman foundation is that both are encouraging me to make that connection more strongly because it will make me a better leader, because it will make me a stronger leader. It will make me a more compassionate leader.”

“I was starting to crave this opportunity to take a step back and to think about how I might have a different sort of impact through the work I was doing. How do we make sure that we’re thinking about the continued support and what [families will] need two, three, four, five years down the road as they work through their grief and healing journey? So this was born out of my experience, but also conversations I had had with other women who had lost their husbands and just starting to see what the challenges look like three years out.”

Timothy Bishop MPP/MIT-MBA 2021, Rappaport Fellow

From his home in northern New Jersey, Tim Bishop went to Williams College, then was admitted to the Army’s Officer Candidate School, followed by Ranger School and Airborne School, earning the coveted Ranger Tab. He was an infantry officer in the 10th Mountain and First Armored Divisions. Over seven years in the Army, Bishop deployed twice to Afghanistan; as chief of operations for Task Force Southeast, he directed operations maintaining security along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He was awarded a Bronze Star. He worked for the Massachusetts governor’s Strategic Innovations Group this summer. He is pursuing both an MPP degree at HKS and an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Reflections:

“There’s a really incredible veterans community here, probably even more robust than you would get at many other schools. The Kennedy School also gets a lot of veterans who are still in the service as well as the National Security Fellows. There is such a span of where veterans are in their careers, whether they’re just starting out, they’re senior commanders, or they’re now retired officers. I don’t think any other school could really compete with that.”

“In my time here at HKS, I feel like I’ve not shied away from doing security and international relations-focused stuff, but I’ve tried to find subject areas where I have little to no experience. I took classes on income inequality last year, classes on state and local government turnaround. And so I’m really trying to just get a breadth of experience.”

“My military service was an incredibly deep and valuable experience, but in some ways it was also pretty narrow. They have one definition of leadership, and that definition works well. Coming here and seeing all different kinds of leadership has been incredibly worthwhile. If you’re sitting in a school council or if you’re an executive in a nonprofit or if you’re an ambassador, those are all different kinds of leadership that need to be worked on. One of the perks here at the Kennedy School is that it does a great job of providing a lot of opportunities to progress as a leader, but it doesn’t define that for you at the outset.”

Akhil Iyer MPP/MBA 2022, Black Family Fellow

The son of immigrants from India, Akhil Iyer grew up in Buffalo in a family that instilled in him a sense of responsibility to give back to the nation. He recalls being fascinated by all things military since his days building model planes and reading stories about great ancient Hindu warriors. That helped engender a fascination with military technology and leadership through service. At Stanford as an undergrad, he was one of a handful of students to join the ROTC program. He commissioned as a Marine Corps officer after graduating, serving as a platoon and company commander, and then as a Marine special operations team commander. He wants to use his joint degrees to better connect private-sector tech expertise with public security needs.

Reflections:

“There are very few places where you get to be 23 years old, leading a platoon of 40 Marines, and experience everything that comes with that—not only the challenges and struggles but also the immense reward, opportunity, pride, and honor of serving.”

“The Black Family Fellowship to me is the most tangible, current precedent being set by HKS to make service a conversation. What I do enjoy about this school is it’s not about what you did yesterday. It’s about what are you going to do to tomorrow. We’re coming here with the perspective that we can build to contribute going forward. That’s the beauty of things like the Black Family Fellowship and the conversations at a very interdisciplinary place like HKS.”

“The Tillman community prioritizes taking your military service and continuing your impact and leadership and service going forward. And to me, I think that’s something that I certainly struggled with as I was debating leaving the service because I had grown up wanting to be a warrior and now I was leaving. But could I use the definition of a warrior maybe in a broader way? Can being a warrior transcend the uniform? Can it be serving in a couple of different capacities where I can still protect the nation or still support national security?”

Banner image: The late Sen. John McCain spoke at a memorial service in 2004 for Army Corporal Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was killed in action in Afghanistan. The Pat Tillman Foundation has given more than 600 scholarships to veterans and spouses to study at US universities, including seven students at Harvard this year. Photo by David Paul Morris.

Portraits by Raychel Casey