2015 Tillman Scholar

Tigon Abalos

University of California - Los Angeles

“Where we come from starts our life’s path, but it is the experiences we chose to make that define us.”

Like many others who graduated high school with limited means, Tigon – a refugee who emigrated from Vietnam to the United States in 1995 – enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2000 to initially pay for college education. But as America quickly entered the war, Tigon made the fateful decision to delay her education and request a transfer into the active-duty Army. That choice has since shaped and defined her more than she ever imagined.

While deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, Tigon found her life’s calling while volunteering on humanitarian aid missions to the refugee camps outside Kabul. There she saw a desperate need for medical professionals, especially dentists. With this new perspective, she traded her combat boots for a textbook and backpack to return to college. Today, while studying at the UCLA School of Dentistry, she is passionate about helping underserved geographic areas and underrepresented minority populations. She believes that with her combined insight as a veteran and minority, she can be a more empathetic and compassionate healthcare provider in local communities.

In addition to her studies, she recently co-founded the Operation Bruin Smiles pilot program at UCLA to subsidize dental care for veterans and foster youths. She has also volunteered at the West Los Angeles VA Hospital where she assisted the dentists with oral surgery for the veterans in the facility. More recently, her life came full-circle on a humanitarian mission to her native Vietnam, where she provided free dental care to impoverished villages in the countryside.

After graduation, Tigon plans to pursue a VA hospital residency, and then a career as a dentist in the VA hospital system while continuing her service in the Reserves.