Tillman Foundation selects Golden Eagle for 2021 cohort

Published 4:50 pm Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Pat Tillman Foundation selected Fabersha Flynt, doctoral student in higher education administration at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), as one of the 60 U.S. service members, veterans and military spouses that makeup the 2021 Tillman Scholars cohort.

Created in 2004 by friends and family of former Arizona Cardinals safety turned U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, in the aftermath of his fratricide death in Afghanistan, the Tillman Scholars Program is a network of over 700 leaders united by their military service, academic passions and desire to make an impact through service.

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Out of thousands of talented applicants, Flynt’s compelling story of sacrifice, determination and potential caught the selection committee’s attention and captured their hearts. She is the first Tillman Scholar to represent USM and one of few surviving spouses who have participated in the scholarship program to date.

Flynt’s journey to becoming a doctoral student at USM and a Tillman Scholar has involved some of life’s greatest highs and deepest lows, but she finds purpose in each experience and draws motivation to keep pressing forward. Upon meeting Flynt, her humble confidence, joy of life, and intellectual curiosity are evident. Her bubbly demeanor and cheerful outlook are a stark contrast to the dark seasons she has endured.

In 2004, Flynt was in graduate school in Mississippi pursuing her master’s degree in history. Her sights were set on earning her Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. Reading and writing filled her days in-between visiting historically significant sites around the South for her research in African American women’s studies. Focused on achieving her educational and career goals, she never imaged a quick Spring Break trip that year would change her life.

While awaiting her flight at Jacksonville International Airport, Flynt bumped into U.S. Army Staff Sargent Bryan A. Lewis. She remembers him as a gentle giant with a great sense of humor that instantly won her over. After exchanging phone numbers and going their separate ways, the strangers continued to converse over phone calls that stretched on for hours.

Their chemistry was natural, and their friendship blossomed. One year later they became engaged, then married in August 2005. With plans for Lewis to complete his next tour in Iraq then transition into law enforcement stateside as they started a family, their fairytale ending appeared to be on the horizon.

In previous years, the month of March held some of Flynt’s favorite memories: meeting Lewis in 2004 and him proposing in 2005. But in 2006, it marked a series of events that rocked her to her core. March 13, 2006, is a day she will never forget. While serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lewis was killed by a roadside bomb near Rustamiyah. Having spoken to one another that morning over instant messenger, the news seemed too horrible and too unbelievable to be real. It was not until Lewis’ body was returned to American soil and laid to rest in his hometown of Bunkie, La., that the unbearable reality of her loss truly began to set in.

During the weeks, months and years that followed, Flynt struggled with denial and bouts of depression and anxiety. The pain drew her into her shell, and her drive stagnated. The same woman who once aspired to earn the title of “Dr.” struggled to find the ambition to turn in assignments in a third master’s degree she languished through. Her past self felt like a stranger, and the future looked bleak without Lewis by her side.

Through reaffirming her faith in God, Flynt was able to walk through her loss and rediscover her purpose. She established a scholarship in memory of her late husband and founded an educational consulting firm focused on helping institutions of higher education foster learning environments that value diversity and inclusion for marginalized students. While a career in higher education had always interested her, her passion shifted some as she worked through grief and reevaluated the course of her future.

“My pain developed my purpose to teach and lead others to a place of solace, a place where their dreams can come to fruition and impact the world,” Flynt said. “I used to want to change parts of my story, but now I understand each step has played a unique part in preparing me to serve others. After trudging through my struggles, I am now on a mission to help traditionally underserved and underrepresented students pursue their educational goals.”

2021 marked 15 years since Sgt. Lewis’ passing, and something about that milestone felt different for Flynt. As the anniversary approached, she made up her mind not to let even one more day pass where she remained idle. “Now is the time. Now is my time,” she told herself. In March 2021, her feelings of inadequacy and doubt melted away when she was notified of her acceptance into the USM School of Education and the Tillman Scholars Program.

“I’ve had my eyes on the Tillman Scholars Program and finally earning my doctorate for a few years, but I struggled to believe in myself. Looking at the long list of brilliant and accomplished scholars caused me to doubt if I was worthy of the honor and capable of succeeding in a rigorous doctoral program,” Flynt said. “Everything changed when I realized it wasn’t a competition though. The Tillman Foundation intends for scholars to form a community that works together to change the world, and so does USM. Once I got out of my own way, everything began to fall into place, and I believe Brian would be so excited to see where my path is leading.”

Flynt began her graduate courses at USM in fall 2021 and is working to complete her degree by spring 2024. Through online synchronous courses offered in the evenings, she is able to learn from experienced faculty at Southern Miss about the structure, financing, legal issues, staffing and administration of higher education organizations while maintaining her job as the Walton County campus director for Athens Technical College in Georgia.

She is eager to collaborate with her advisor and other skilled practitioners in the program to research, publish articles and present at various conferences. Through using relevant scholarship and strategies gained through her coursework at USM, she aims to change the trajectory of how diversity, equity and inclusion are viewed and promoted in student learning, faculty and staff retention, and leadership.

Flynt’s ultimate goal is to use her education and experience to rise in leadership and secure a position as president of a college or university. By working diligently on her degree, participating in networking, mentoring and professional development opportunities offered through the Tillman Scholars Program, and continuing to empathize with and guide students who cross her path, she is well on her way to making a difference.

For more information about the Tillman Scholars Program, visit pattillmanfoundation.org. To learn more about USM’s School of Education, visit usm.edu/education.