The Pat Tillman Foundation recently awarded 60 military veterans and spouses around the country almost $1.4 million in scholarship money.
Three of those winners were University of South Florida students this year, reaping a total of about $30,000. USF also had its first female Tillman Military Scholar in the school's history this year.
The scholarship, which is in memory of the late NFL player who put his football career aside to enlist in the Army after Sept. 11, 2001, is open to veteran and active duty military service members from all branches, as well as spouses, who have big career ambitions, leadership potential and demonstrations of community service.
USF is one of 16 partner universities with the Tillman Foundation. The foundation picks its partner schools based on veterans support services and communities. Here's a little bit more about each of the winners, who all happen to have career goals in medicine.
Mendez joined the Army in 2005 and deployed four times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. After seeing people injured during deployments, he returned with a "huge drive" to work in medicine. He got his grades up and earned an undergraduate degree in Illinois, then transferred to USF, where he hopes to complete medical school and become a doctor.
He has worked with an organization called GallantFew, helping Army rangers transitioning from the military to civilian life, and Special Operations Warrior Foundation, helping families and friends of people injured oversees. He's preparing to transition from a master's program into medical school.
Mendez first applied for the Tillman scholarship two years ago, and like many first-time applicants didn't make the cut. He talked to some of the scholars who had won before, took their advice and tried again. Mendez was an Army Ranger like Tillman and felt a special call to be affiliated with the program.
"I had that connection with him, and his call of service and leadership is something I try to follow," he said. "I knew I wanted to be part of the organization."
Hometown: New Port Richey
After graduating from Florida State University, DeSantis had no interest in medicine. He decided to enlist in the Marines, where he served from 2006 to 2010.
After that, everything changed.
"It was my experience in the military that shaped my decision to go toward medicine," he said. "Seeing what a big impact our doctors and medics were able to have in taking care of some of the local Iraqi people, that kind of pushed me toward it. … I've made a commitment that I'm going to spend the rest of my life in health care trying to serve patients and take care of people."
He enrolled at USF, where he's now a second-year medical student conducting research about specific needs of veterans. He has volunteered at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, pushing patients in wheelchairs, taking them to appointments and hearing their stories.
"The strongest part of this award is the network of people that you're going to become acquainted with. I told them, you can offer me $10 a year and I would still apply for the scholarship just as passionately as I have."
Awarded: $8,000, renewable every year
As a military police officer in the Army, Irvin spent her time doing security detail in downtown Baqubah and teaching Iraqi security forces the ins and outs of keeping their people secure. She eventually continued her education at USF, with her eyes set on going back overseas as a doctor.
"I'd like to be a physician for the Army," said Irvin, who is starting a master's program at USF. "It was really inspiring. You kind of develop this love for soldiers and what these kids do and what their families do to support them."
Irvin is USF's first female Tillman Military Scholar, and places great responsibility on helping young women develop into strong people. She volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, where she mentors a 12-year-old girl. The other day, Irvin said, she and her Little Sister had a conversation about the phrase "You only live once." If that's true, the girl decided, it's better to make good choices, not crazy, impulsive ones.
"She drove the conversation," said Irvin. "I walked away thinking, that's a really cool way to think about it. … She definitely teaches me probably more than I teach her."