When Natasha DeLeon opted to join the military after high school, one of the reasons she decided to enlist was that she understood the value of an education. She was also well-aware there was a financial cost required to obtain it. While the G.I. Bill is a well-known educational benefit for military service, each branch of the military has unique benefits for servicemembers seeking to better themselves through higher education, and for DeLeon the educational benefits were among her top priorities in terms of what she was seeking.

Natasha Deleon

“I needed to grow up. I was 18, I had no idea what I was going to do,” said DeLeon, who is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran enrolled in Syracuse University’s College of Law. “I didn’t have a full ride to college at the time. I saw a recruiting poster at school, and I signed the paperwork about ten days after calling the recruiter.”

DeLeon served from 2012 to 2017, primarily as a marine air ground task force planner, a position critical to how the U.S. Marine Corps manages its global force, particularly with force deployment planning and execution. In short, she helped administer and orchestrate the highly complicated process of supporting the operational requirements for today’s globally deployed military.

“My service gave me a little bit of discipline and some determination. Aside from access to education through the G.I. Bill and different scholarships, it’s really given me the personality I think is required of a person who wants to make an impact.” she said.

DeLeon is one of four Syracuse University students who were named Tillman Scholars in 2022. Like many of her fellow Tillman Scholars, she’s already experienced having an impact through her military service. The scholarship is awarded by the Pat Tillman Foundation each year to service members, veterans, and their spouses with a potential for impact, demonstrated through a track record of leadership, pursuit of education, and commitment to service beyond self.

“I went to Afghanistan and I did the redeployment of Camp Leatherneck. We closed it, sent everybody to Kandahar, and from Kandahar back to the States.” DeLeon said. What she briefly mentions in a mere sentence was actually an impressive accomplishment in terms of the logistical challenges involved.

DeLeon in uniform

DeLeon supported the shutdown of a major military installation which had served as a critical operational hub for the additional 26,000 U.S. troops deployed as part of an operational surge starting in 2009–several years before her enlistment–and was turned over to the Afghan Armed Forces as a usable, defendable, functioning base in 2014 following a carefully planned procedure to scale back the U.S. presence there safely and securely.

Since getting out of the military DeLeon has picked up several titles and continued to have a worldwide impact. Her husband, also a U.S. Marine, was a Marine Security Guard stationed at embassies and consulates around the world. While her family was stationed in Togo, a nation in West Africa, she led self-defense courses for women in vulnerable positions. While in Bogota, Colombia, a sudden opportunity to work in a law firm helped align her with her long-term ambition.

“My goal is to be a voice for people who have experienced trauma in their lives that led to them losing custody of their children temporarily,” said DeLeon, “The system is obviously set up for the safety and well-being of the children, but there’s not a lot of resources for biological parents in the legal system. I want to use my association with the Tillman Scholarship to further that passion of mine and work in foster care, but not as case manager. I want to help biological parents get their kids back.”

Amidst her time in the military, and the ever-changing life of a military spouse, DeLeon had also been working on her original goal of gaining an education. While on active duty in San Diego, California, she used a tuition-assistance program to earn a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and worked part-time and volunteered in the San Diego foster care system. That allowed her to use her G.I. Bill and earn a Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California in 2019. It was the crucial next step to earning her law degree that brought her to Syracuse University.

DeLeon with others in uniform

“I was searching for an online, or at least mostly online, program that would fit my desire to not live in one place,” DeLeon explained, “I found a lot of law school programs that were business focused and the very last thing that I would ever want to focus on is contracts, mergers, acquisitions. With the JDi program you can take elects in criminal law, family law and mediation. All those things drew me in. I knew if I wasn’t getting into Syracuse, I wasn’t going anywhere else.”

DeLeon is enrolled in the JDinteractive (JDi) program offered by the College of Law. JDi is offered as a hybrid learning option and is among the first law schools in the country to earn an American Bar Association certification for their hybrid program. During her time in the program, she learned about the Tillman Scholarship and knew it was a pathway to achieving her goals.

“I didn’t know what the Tillman Foundation was, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I had no idea it was a community of people like this,” said DeLeon. “I thought it was just like, ‘Here’s your scholarship. Have a good day!’”

What DeLeon might not have been expecting about the Tillman Scholarship, however, was how interested the foundation was in Natasha as a person. Many Tillman Scholars reflect on having to get to know themselves better through the application process, and truly refine what their goals are.

“The Tillman Foundation gives me the opportunity to bring the ideas that I have and the ambitions into a room full of people that have the attention of the service fields,” said DeLeon. “Whether it be law or social work, and that is opening door to these connections that I never would have had otherwise.”

DeLeon in front of Dineen Hall

DeLeon wants to combine the intricate worlds of law and social work to address an issue she sees in how the courts deal with families, particularly lower-income families from underserved communities.

 “I want to work in family law and in foster care, but not as a foster care case manager,” said DeLeon. “I want to help biological parents get their kids back.”

DeLeon understands her goal may be a cause for alarm for some people, but she explains that she wants to be a voice for people who have experienced trauma in their lives that led to them losing custody of their children. She says that most parents who have lost custody of their children to foster care have experienced extreme trauma themselves, which hinders their ability to parent and provide a safe standard of care for their children.  The legal system presently does not take parental trauma into account and DeLeon wants this to be fairly represented for parents going through family court.

In looking at her background it’s easy to see that Natasha is driven to achieve her goals, having gone from a 2.6 grade point average in high school to a 4.0 GPA in graduate school. She’s also vocal about supporting her fellow student veterans and encouraging them to pursue their own goals. When asked what she would tell a student veteran who may be considering applying for the Tillman Scholarship, her advice was straight forward.

“First, I would tell them that you deserve to apply. Your story matters and what you want to do matters,” said DeLeon. “If you’re thinking about applying, you must put aside that imposter syndrome and recognize your worth. You’re worth it, and you can do it.”