2021 Tillman Scholar

Fiona Balsa

Military Spouse
University of North Carolina

“Caring for a family member with autism opened my eyes and gave me purpose. As a psychologist, I dedicate my life to empower people with neurodevelopmental disabilities to live a dignified and fulfilling life.”

Born in Indonesia and raised by a single mother, Fiona was fortunate to be the first generation in her family to attend college. She believes in what Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Her experiences growing up in the midst of abject poverty and social inequality cultivated a burning desire to help disadvantaged children.

After obtaining her master’s degree in international care and community development from Northwest University, Fiona put her passion into practice by becoming an international development worker. Her mission was to improve the well-being of children around the world through quality education. In this role, she worked with underprivileged populations in various countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Fiona became increasingly engaged with the issue of developmental disabilities when her only nephew was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of two. It opened her eyes and made her see the world through a different lens. She realized that children with disabilities face enormous struggles—stigma, discrimination, isolation, and barriers to healthcare and education—from a very young age.

Moved, humbled, and empowered, she decided to dedicate her life to support those whose lives are impacted by neurodevelopmental disorders. Fiona is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of North Carolina while caring for her twin toddlers and enthusiastically serving as a soldier and family readiness group leader in her husband’s unit. She envisions starting a clinic that serves children with autism and other disabilities in underserved communities with her degree.