George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Two Mason graduate students named Pat Tillman Scholars

July 30, 2018   /   by John Hollis

Melissa Swensen

One is a survivor of war in Iraq, now driven by a deep love for America, the other a military wife and mother of five who seeks to improve the lives of injured U.S. service members.

George Mason University graduate students Ali Nayyef and Melissa Swensen are part of the 2018 class of Pat Tillman Scholars, named in honor of the former NFL star who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 while serving with the U.S. Army Rangers.

The two are among the 60 recipients chosen by the Chicago-based Pat Tillman Foundation from among thousands of applicants. The scholarship awards of roughly $10,000 are reserved for military veterans and their spouses and are used for tuition and fees, books and living expenses.

Scholarship recipients are selected for their strength of character, academic excellence and potential, according to the foundation website. Award recipients are expected to apply the best lessons they’ve learned in life and the military to positively impact America in the fields of medicine, business, law, science, education and the arts.

Mark J. Rozell, the dean of Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said that Nayyef and Swensen are the kinds of extraordinary students who help make the university special.

“Mason honors those who serve the nation and is very is proud that our students are recipients of the prestigious Tillman Scholarship,” Rozell said.

Nayyef, who is pursuing a master’s degree in political science at the Schar School after earning his bachelor’s at Christopher Newport University, came to the United States in 2010 following the death of his father at the hands of Al Qaeda in their native Iraq. His father had served as an interpreter alongside U.S. military forces in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003.

“I can apply the lessons I have learned at war and as a refugee, along with my passion for studying international relations, to address many of the security challenges the United States and the world continues to face,” Nayyef said.

All Nayyef

Shortly after the family’s arrival in the United States, Nayyef’s sister, who had also worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces, enlisted in the U.S. Army and served three years on active duty. Nayyef followed suit and enlisted in the Virginia Army National Guard following his own graduation from high school in 2014, and continues to serve as an infantryman.

“Every day I get to wake up and live the American dream because of the bravery of the men and women who came before me,” he said. “I intend on honoring them and this country by living up to my full potential and to give back not only as a soldier, but as a scholar.”

Swensen, who is married to an Air Force major, is working on a doctor of nursing practice in psychiatric mental health in Mason’s School of Nursing after earning a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. She credits her experiences working and teaching within the military community for her passion for the well-being of service members.

Yet it was her own experience as a patient that opened her eyes to what injured service members endure. Swensen was halfway through her fifth pregnancy when she was diagnosed with heart arrhythmia and medically evacuated from Germany aboard a C-17 transport also carrying service members who had been severely wounded in combat.

Spending several weeks at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., among the wounded warriors opened her eyes to the physical wounds they suffered, as well as the ones that went unseen.

“The physical wounds heal,” Swensen said. “It’s the emotional wounds they really have a difficult time working through.”

She hopes to focus her education and research on evidence-based treatments in healing both mental and emotional trauma.

“I think it’s really important,” Swensen said. “The military community needs good people who get it.”

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