When Theresa Amelia Hilsdon, a Navy veteran, enrolled in Georgetown University's Bachelor of Liberal Arts (BALS) program, she was overjoyed to be able to finish her degree at a prestigious institution. "My life changed when I received my acceptance letter,” she recalls.
As she progressed through the program and met other veterans, she realized that many members of the military don't think they'll ever be able to go to college.
After earning her degree – and a 2014 Spirit of Georgetown Award for her campus involvement – she decided to make a career out of helping other veterans navigate the college admissions and financing process. She started a new nonprofit called the Yellow Ribbon Society to provide outreach and mentoring support for veterans as they pursue their higher education goals.
Why did you choose the BALS program?
Being a Navy veteran, I moved around a lot during my career. I entered the Navy at age 17, and as soon as I could, I enrolled in classes on base and began my college education. I took classes after work and on weekends at various locations around the world. I longed to finish my undergraduate degree at a really good school.
I have admired Georgetown ever since I was old enough to understand the distinctions among higher education institutions. When I received my acceptance letter, I was overjoyed. Georgetown’s BALS program was exactly what I wanted: an intellectually challenging course of study with caring professors, plus class times that would not interfere with my work schedule. I also had a boss who was a previous Georgetown professor—he believed in me and encouraged me to apply to the program, even providing me a recommendation letter.
Were you able to continue working as you earned your degree?
Yes! I worked full time during my course of study. I chose the Individualized Study track so I could focus on classes that were relevant to my career interests. I also wanted to maximize my previously earned college credits. I worked closely with my advisors to craft class schedules that would allow me to finish my degree in the least amount of time while still working. They also helped me find classes that would provide deep insight into areas that I wanted to study.
What did you gain from your Georgetown experience?
My life has truly been enriched by my experience at Georgetown. I have grown professionally but more importantly, I have grown as a person. I am dedicated to giving back to others.
What extracurricular activities were you involved in as a student?
Even though I was working full time, I really wanted to have the full “college experience” and participate in campus groups. I was actively involved in the Georgetown University Student Veterans of America (GUSVA) chapter and really enjoyed the volunteer service aspect of being a part of that organization. I participated in several GUSVA community service projects while I was a student in the BALS program:
- 2011 Veterans Day cleanup project at the WWII Memorial;
- GUSVA support to the National Park Service during the 2012 Cherry Blossom Festival;
- and 2013 Veterans’ Day of Service sponsored by the National Veterans Center, during which I worked with a team of other student veterans to landscape a housing development in Anacostia to protect the Potomac watershed by reducing groundwater runoff.
I also felt it was important to fully participate in my broader BALS experience outside of veteran issues. I was nominated by my peers for a leadership position in the student government of the BALS program—The Society of Liberal Studies—and was delighted to win a seat on the Board. I chaired the newly-formed Subcommittee on Mentorship and began to informally mentor other students, student veterans, and prospective BALS candidates, encouraging them to apply to the program.
After graduation, the Board voted to allow me to continue to serve as an alumni advisor. In February 2014, I became an active supporter of Georgetown’s own Dog Tag Bakery. The Dog Tag Bakery is an entrepreneurial program focused on education and employment for veterans with disabilities and their spouses. I currently serve on their Military Support Committee.
How did you come up with the idea for the Yellow Ribbon Society?
Many of my fellow student veterans never thought they would go to college. I started thinking about how I could make a positive impact and I came up with the idea for a nonprofit called the Yellow Ribbon Society.
Being a veteran, I care deeply about making sure that other veterans get the materials and support they need to make informed decisions about attending college. Even more, I want them to be prepared for the school of their choice.
The idea behind my nonprofit is to help veterans get the information they need about schools participating in the Post 9-11 GI Bill (Yellow Ribbon program), then provide peer-to-peer mentorship and support.
How can others get involved?
My organization is new and I'm still getting things started. My inaugural cohort of peer mentors will debut in fall 2014. I am looking for more student veterans to serve as mentors. I am also looking for new mentees. I encourage anyone interested in this idea to look at my website and contact me today. You can also show your support on Facebook and Twitter (@YellowRibbnScty).