A Flight Attendant, A Widow & A Scholar
On Christmas Day 2011, Nikki Altmann received news that would change her life forever. Her husband, Staff Sergeant Joseph Altmann, was killed in active duty while serving in Afghanistan. Three years later, a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation and enrollment in the College of Education and Human Development’s human resource development bachelor’s degree program gave her life new purpose.
Nikki, who previously served troops as a flight attendant on chartered military flights, had always enjoyed helping others and, particularly, serving the military. When her husband passed, she sought to use her work experience to give back to her country. She realized that the first step in fulfilling that dream was to pursue a college degree.
She was one of 60 military veterans and spouses chosen to receive the scholarship out of nearly 7,000 applicants nationwide.
Now she is determined to live up to the Pat Tillman legacy of public service.
“I want to pay it forward and say ‘thank you’ by succeeding,” she said. “As if to say, ‘Because of you, look what I did.’”
On the topic of military widows and widowers like her, she said, “It’s sad. It is but we want to turn that tragedy into something triumphant. We’re honoring [our soldiers] by living our lives.”
Nikki credits the Pat Tillman Foundation for taking that persevering attitude and giving her the professional know-how to turn her lofty dreams into practical action.
It’s sad. It is but we want to turn that tragedy into something triumphant. We’re honoring our soldiers by living our lives - Nikki Altmann, Pat Tillman Scholar, human resource development studentTweet This
There's a Spirit Can Ne'er Be Told
As it turned out, her search for a bachelor’s degree in human resource development, which is offered at very few universities in her home state of Texas, led her to Texas A&M University.
The challenge of re-adjusting to civilian life – coupled with the typical difficulties of being a non-traditional student – was not easy, but she felt at home within the university’s military culture.
“The military lifestyle is different and it’s an amazing feeling to be apart of. I got that same feeling when I got to A&M. I never understood what it meant to say, ‘There’s a spirit can ne’er be told.’ Now I get it.”
She said that she has enjoyed the small class sizes and close-knit atmosphere within the College of Education and Human Development.
“This has been my best decision ever. Not just being at A&M but being at the College of Education and Human Development. There are some amazing advisers here and some amazing support over at Heaton Hall.”
In spite of her early struggles on campus, she has thrived in her degree program and her advisers rave about her.
“In a short time, she has become a leader in many of her major courses,” said Avery Pavliska, senior advisor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource (EAHR). “We are proud to have Nikki in our department.”
Brynn Ruiz, academic advisor in EAHR, said, “She has been through quite a lot and in sharing her goals with me, I know her perseverance and determination will get her there!”
When she graduates, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree and use what she has learned to better prepare military families for the challenges of reintegration.
Aggie Gold Star Network & What's Next
In her degree program, she is learning how to create an inclusive environment for employees in the workplace. She hopes to apply those same lessons of diversity and inclusion to advocate for a better learning environment for veterans and military spouses on campus.
After talking with a friend at the Texas A&M Veteran Resource & Support Center, she started the Aggie Gold Star Network. Named for the gold star lapel button given to family members who lose a loved one in the line of duty, the group hopes to provide those students support and connect them with the many veteran resources on campus.
She said that, in the future, she might want the network to provide scholarships and fund Aggie Rings for its members. For now however, it is a means of connection between those students, which she said is a powerful thing on its own.
“I want those students to understand that they’re not alone; that there are actually people on campus who understand what they’re going through.”
Between her coursework and all that she does with the university’s military community, she continues to think of her late husband.
“He is my driving force,” she said. “When he was serving and I was flying, we used to say, ‘We’re both doing our part, just a little different. I’m over here and you’re over there.’”
Three years after her husband’s passing, two things haven’t changed: she’s still doing her part, and he still gives her strength.
“He does support me still and I know he’s here,” she smiled. “I can’t see him but he’s here.”
Media contact: Dominiuqe Benjamin, Communications Specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org