TILLMAN TUESDAY: Military Spouse Embraces Opportunity to Use Her Inner Voice

Featured Media, News | 02/23/2015

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support.

In our third edition of Tillman Tuesday, we feature our first Tillman Scholar spouse, Katherine Steele who is currently pursuing her Master of Education at George Washington University. In addition to being a spouse, mother of two and teacher in K-12 school systems, Steele and her family are preparing for three-year orders to Okinawa, Japan this upcoming summer.

Based on your experience as a public school teacher, it’s safe to say you have a passion for education with you yourself working towards your Master of Education at George Washington University. With experiences as both a teacher and student, explain why you feel education is so important?

  “The lack of continuity in education from state-to-state can hinder the military student from achieving peak academic success. Students that are moved in and out of districts that are not synchronous with each other find themselves either ahead or drastically behind in academics. These peaks and valleys in education coupled with the emotional turmoil that moves and deployments alone can place on a military child can wreak havoc on a student’s academic career. There is a need for organizations that are working to bridge the academic gaps and social-emotional impact that school mobility has on military children, as well as a continued focus on instilling in these children the value of higher education. The resiliency of military-connected students makes them ideal candidates for higher education, but we must continue to impart to these students the value in higher education. These students know the value in serving our country, they do it for the majority of their formative years as growing adolescents, and if we can couple their dedication to service and their resilient attitude and add to that higher education the impact that they can have on their community could be unparalleled.”

Upon receiving your Master’s degree, what are your goals post-graduation?

  “Graduation is right around the corner at George Washington University for me and I am thrilled to be able to get out into the community and put that education into action. Ideally, I’d like to gather some practical experience with a district as an administrator, before embarking on my own professional goal of starting my own system of charter schools that employ military spouses and educate the dependents of our service members with a continuity of purpose.”

What motivated you to apply for the Tillman Scholars program? Explain what the honor of being chosen as a Tillman Scholar meant to you when you received the call that you had been selected.

  “The Tillman Foundation invests in military veterans and spouses financially which is incredible, but it does far more than just fund educational dreams: it connects Scholars to a community of learners that have a desire to serve others. As a Tillman Scholar I am surrounded by a cadre of individuals that have a sense of vocation coupled with a commitment to positive change through hard work and dedication. I think when most of us first apply, you look at the financial opportunity and the impact the monetary gift could have on our accruing debt. Yet, the first moment that I sat in a room full of other 6th class scholars in Chicago, I knew it was going to be more than the money that made this opportunity matter. The connections, the camaraderie, and the inspiration to do more and work harder are worth more than the financial gift. I think as soon as a new scholar sits in a room with previous awardees they feel it.”

You were recently nominated for Military Spouse of the Year. How humbling was that honor for you, knowing how important the role of a Military Spouse is?

  “Being nominated for Military Spouses of the Year was a complete shock, but I think what was the most emotional for me was not why I was nominated, but by whom. Nikki Altman, a fellow 6th class spouse took the time to nominate me. Nikki is one of the most inspirational spouses I have had the pleasure to meet, a woman dedicated to the Tillman Foundation and what it represents, an involved student at Texas A&M, and a surviving spouse. Nikki exemplifies the spirit of Pat, giving back and lifting up others, in a completely unselfish and humble way.”

What is your favorite part about being part of the Military family?

  “I joke that my resume looks like I’ve been running from the law for 17 years. We started moving right after we graduated from college in Seattle and so far have lived in Quantico (twice), Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina (twice), California, and Arizona (twice), and are wrapping up the last leg of our tour in Quantico (oh yes, we are up for orders again!). I had one of those signs made that listed all the places we’ve been and told the girl to paint on a gold star for all the second awards I’ve received for repeating States! I think that all these adventures are really one of the best parts of being in the military though.”

 When referring to service, deployment and other related Military sacrifices, a lot of people tend to fail to recognize the service and sacrifice a spouse of a servicemen or woman makes. Though it may be hard to summarize briefly, explain the challenges and sacrifices military spouses face.

  “Moving and deployments can be one of the biggest challenges for a military spouse, and the sacrifices that many of us make especially in career progression are widespread. Our family is resilient, strong and connected to each other and the other military families around us, and I wouldn’t change our life for anything, but that doesn’t make it easy. So many spouses have a sense of vocation coupled with a commitment to positive change and being connected to them is empowering. As a military spouse we serve in such a different capacity than our service member counterparts, and I believe we all have the responsibility and opportunity to give back, reach our potential as leaders, and take our own spirit of service and share it with others. Surrounding myself with these spouses motivates me, and is uplifting during moments of frustration.”

What has being selected as a Tillman Scholar allowed you to do in terms of your impact? Why would you recommend the program to other veterans or military spouses?

  “One of my favorite quotes of Pat’s is, ‘Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of who we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.’ The Tillman Foundation has validated not only my experience as a military spouse but more importantly my voice. As a military spouse I think we often feel overshadowed by the greatness of our spouse’s own service and it becomes easy to ignore our own inner voice. My husband has always encouraged me to recognize my own voice, and use it to impact those around me. He encouraged me to apply for the scholarship. When the Tillman Foundation validated my voice and my vision, just as my husband has done, I think it solidified for me the impact that I could make in the field of education for military-connected students.”

The application for our seventh class of Tillman Scholars is under way. What is some advice you could share with those making their way through the application process?

  “I’ve been able to meet with several spouses over the last month who are applying to be scholars for the Seventh Class and I think the one constant piece of advice I give to them all is to find your vision. There are amazing spouses that make up the dependent support system for our military service members, but the key is to take what makes each spouse unique and impactful and cultivate a vision based on those gifts. Tillman scholars admire Pat’s call to action. I remember 9/11 and watching my own military spouse go to work that day and wondering what the future held. The legacy of Pat that is the heart of this foundation is one of giving back. As a military spouse we serve in such a different capacity than our service members, and like Pat’s spouse Marie, we are able to now reach our potential as leaders and take our own spirit of service and share it with others. For any spouse that applies it will be a heart of service and leadership that will endear them to the foundation.”

How do you juggle your school, husband, kids and anything else you may have on your plate?

  “Magic; but mostly a lot of planning! “

Tell us something unique about yourself that others might not know.

  “In 2012 my husband emailed me a link from Afghanistan about an article on cnn.com describing people that married their prom dates with a little note that said “HaHa and I love you.” I pulled out our prom photos and decided to write an article for CNN that was eventually published detailing our life as high school sweethearts turned military enlisted couple, and eventual officer couple. Marrying my prom date from 1995 made me think about how much life has changed and how our family has grown. It’s amazing how much life you’ve lived in a short amount of time. Looking at those photos again now I realize that you hold onto those memories because they show you how far you’ve come, how you’ve changed, and all you’ve accomplished. If you want a laugh, check out the photos; the 90’s were so good to us. http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-774895

You and your family are getting set to deploy to Japan soon. What’s the mission at hand there? How long will you be there?

  “We’ve been in Quantico, VA for 8 months and just found out a week ago that we will be moving to Okinawa, Japan this July on three-year orders. This will be our first international move, so for now my mission is to figure out how to consolidate 15,000 pounds of household goods into the allotted 6200 pounds! All joking aside, we’ve been working on getting the kids set up in the DOD school system and I am actively looking for a job either teaching on base or in one of the international schools situated outside of the base in Okinawa. Probably one of the most exciting aspects of moving is that I already have a Tillman Scholar waiting for me to arrive! Heather Pahman, a fellow Tillman Scholar, lives in Okinawa and we are planning to get together and grow the Tillman contingency of awesomeness in Japan.”

Where do you see yourself in five years?

  “In five years I will have been a military spouse for 23 years, my husband will be retired from the military and in a new line of work, and both of my children will be in college. For me, I am confident that I will be well on my way to creating a system of charter schools located near active-duty military bases, specifically engineered to meet the unique requirements of military dependents. I am lucky that my life experiences as a military spouse and mother, professional qualifications as a teacher in K-12 systems across 8 states and soon to be one country have developed my own personal vision for the future. My husband recognized and encouraged my inner voice, the Tillman Foundation validated it, and now I am intent on following that voice to impact education for military students.”