As one of 16 universities that are designated as a University Partner with the Tillman Foundation, Syracuse University typically has at least one Tillman Scholar each year. This year Syracuse was honored with four military-connected students selected for the prestigious scholarship. Amanda Higginson, who served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, was among them.

For many, earning a doctoral degree in medicine and being an officer in the Navy are lifetime achievements all on their own, but for Higginson it was just a start. Currently enrolled in the JDinteractive (JDi) program at the Syracuse University College of Law, Higginson was also named a Tillman Scholar in 2022.

The Tillman Scholarship is named after Patrick “Pat” Tillman. Tillman was a professional football player who turned down a multi-million-dollar contract with the National Football League to enlist in the military. Tillman was later killed in a friendly-fire incident while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan in 2004. The scholarship is awarded to military servicemembers, veterans, and their spouses during their journey through higher education.

“I knew who Pat Tillman was, but I didn’t know much about this foundation or the scholarship,” said Higginson, who is currently the interim associate dean for student affairs at the East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine, “I went online to learn more and thought that it sounded like an incredible foundation and opportunity.” She added.

“I was connected with Jolynn Parker, who has mentored so many students who have applied for the scholarship, and with all the support networks at Syracuse I decided to apply.”

Parker, who is the director for Syracuse University’s Center for Fellowship & Scholarship Advising, holds information sessions with the university’s military connected students each year. A common recommendation from her, and previous Tillman Scholars alike, is for interested applicants to start the process early and take advantage of the resources available to help ensure a military-connected student can put the best application forward.

Lt. Amanda Higginson, assigned to the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, treats a Colombian child at the pediatric center. Iwo Jima is operating off the coast of Colombia supporting Continuing Promise 2010, a humanitarian and civic assistance mission. (Photo by: PO2 Christopher Stoltz, U.S. Navy)

Higginson served as a pediatrician in the Navy. She applied for, and was accepted into, the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program during her senior year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. After medical school she completed her residency in pediatrics at the National Naval Medical Center (now known as Walter Reed Military Medical Center Bethesda) in Bethesda, Maryland. Her husband, also a U.S. Navy officer serving in naval medicine, was stationed in there as well.

“When we got out of the military we wanted to go as far away from urban living as possible.” Higginson said, “It would take 40 minutes just to get off base in the afternoon. At the time my son was three, and I just remember one day leaving base and the whole hour-plus commute home he was screaming and kicking in the chair–I think that was the point where we we’re done. So we ended up in rural eastern North Carolina.”

Now living near Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, both major military installations in eastern North Carolina, Higginson still has exposure to the active-military community. Aside from her role as interim associate dean, she’s also a practicing pediatrician at the clinic on campus where she treats the children of military families from time to time. In this position she started to connect her past interest in law to the impact she wanted to have with the medical-legal connection.

“Long before I ever decided that medicine was the field for me, I was interested in law,” recalled Amanda. “I just found it very interesting. Even though that’s not ultimately the career path I took, I always remained very interested in the law and our legal system.”

Growing up near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Higgins had already been exposed to the idea of service through her father, a U.S. Army veteran who was wounded and paralyzed during the Vietnam War. She credits her interest in the legal system to a civics class during seventh grade, but she also wanted to give back to military medicine because of her father. Like many other mid-career professionals, the idea of going to law school just didn’t seem realistic.
“It was just a random day where I was looking online for an online program, or if there were any law schools that offered such a program,” said Higginson. “That’s how I found Syracuse; it was just fortuitous.” She had stumbled on the JDi program at the Syracuse University College of Law, which is one of the few Juris Doctorate-awarding programs in the nation accredited by the American Bar Association.

Aside from the criteria for a military-connection, the Tillman Foundation also requires recipients have the desire for continued service and the drive to impact positive change in their community. Amanda’s primary goal is developing a medical legal partnership; part law clinic and part medical clinic. Throughout her medical career, Higginson has seen the difficulty some families must face, particularly when both parents and one or both parents are deployed, and that is what inspires her to pursue this goal.

“As a primary care pediatrician, I see how legal issues affect patients and families every day,” said Higginson, “if it’s confusing for me, I definitely know it’s confusing for many of our families.” In her position, Amanda was right at the crossroads where policy issues and bureaucracy hampered effective medical care.

“Just being able to support those families and see how the military community surrounds them and supports them was very powerful to witness, and something that I’ve carried with me,” said Amanda. Ultimately, she wants to make sure that those families she cares for knows what rights they’re entitled to, where they should go for the specific help they need, and what questions they should be asking.

Higginson says that her service, education, and goals all boil down to one thing, “I just want to help people get to where they need to go.”

The application window for the next cohort of Tillman Scholars is currently open, those military-connected students who are interested in learning more, or applying, are encouraged to visit Syracuse University’s Tillman Scholars.