To Ma’am, With Love: USU’s Graduating Class Celebrates a Memorable Teacher and Mentor

Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley receives the William P. Clements Jr. Award for Excellence in Education at the USU School of Medicine Class of 2022 Award Ceremony. (l to r) Dean Eric Elster, MAJ(P) Laura Tilley, Class President 2LT Spencer Glancy, and Class Vice President 2d Lt. Loxley Godshall-Bennett.  (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)

By Vivian Mason

When asked what qualities make a good teacher great, the graduating class of 2022 at the Uniformed Services University’s (USU) F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine (SOM) had a few ideas. Adjectives like “compassionate,” “committed,” and “collaborative” were most often mentioned alongside more defined qualities, such as “the ability to create a sense of community and belonging in the classroom,” “an excellent communicator and a good listener,” and “the ability to provide context and relevance to real-world scenarios.” The best description of a great teacher, however, was a name: Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley, assistant professor for the SOM Department of Military and Emergency Medicine (MEM) at USU.

Specifically, Tilley is the director for the Military Medicine 200 Module and serves as the course director for both Medical Field Practicum 201: Operation Gunpowder, and Military Contingency Medicine (or MCM), the two-week prep course for the Bushmaster medical field exercise. Tilley also serves as a faculty advisor for various student projects, and teaches individual lectures and courses for the Military Medicine curriculum, which her students lovingly refer to as “Tilley Time.”

I had the wonderful opportunity to work closely with Maj. Tilley during our MCM module before Bushmaster. I am always inspired by her passion for education and by her dedication to ensuring our success as both military leaders and medical providers. She sets the example for me of what it means to be an Army Medical Officer. Every student at USU should count themselves lucky to have her as an MEM instructor.

― Army 2nd Lt. Spencer Glancy, Class of 2022

Though Tilley has only served in her position at USU since 2019, her commitment to her students and the USU mission is readily apparent and honored by her peers. This year, Tilley has been selected as the name reader for medical students during the class of 2022’s Commencement Ceremony. “I was definitely very honored and humbled by that,” she says. In addition, Tilley received the William P. Clements Jr. Award at the recent School of Medicine graduation awards ceremony, which recognizes a uniformed SOM faculty educator who, by personal example and performance, best characterizes the principles of excellence in education. This award is voted on by SOM students across all four years of the curriculum. 

“I was shocked to get both awards,” Tilley exclaims. “What an incredible honor!” 

Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley debriefs the SOM Class of 2023 students at the Operation Gunpowder field exercise. [Photo credit: Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley, USU]
Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley debriefs the SOM Class of 2023 students at the Operation Gunpowder field exercise. [Photo credit: Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura
Tilley, USU] 

Prior to USU, Tilley served as the director for the Emergency Medicine clerkships at both Madigan Army Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital where she notes that she  had the opportunity to work with USU students.

“Teaching has always been a part of who I am,” Tilley explains. Throughout her career, she’s taught residents and medical students. A major highlight from her teaching experience was teaching medics in Afghanistan. 

“I’ve always been really passionate about teaching. Seeing each of my students grow, develop, and become their own individual selves is incredibly rewarding. I call them my ‘ducklings.’ So, watching my ducklings fly has been a powerful experience as an educator. Having been able to shepherd them throughout the process to become incredible military medical officers is very gratifying.”

Maj. Tilley brings unparalleled enthusiasm to USU through her eagerness to teach military medicine and mentor students. She is very approachable and generous with her time to build relationships with all who seek her guidance. I have been lucky enough to work closely with Maj. Tilley while navigating the many demands of medical school. She’s taught me the peculiarities of emergency medicine, guided me through research projects, and helped facilitate professional development. She has assisted in shaping the future physician I will soon be, and I’ll always look up to her as an invaluable mentor.

― Air Force 2nd Lt. Jennifer E. Pakieser, Class of 2022

The curriculum in the MEM department extends throughout a student’s four years at USU. Having had the opportunity to work with students in the classes of 2020-2025, Tilley says that she thinks what’s really powerful about the MEM department is that “we’re able to have that longitudinal relationship with the students, and really see and shape their development in becoming military medical officers. What separates USU from all the other schools are our students. They are an absolutely incredible representation of military medicine.”  

Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley (Photo credit: Tom
Balfour, USU)
Tilley also believes that being able to collaborate with other individuals and departments presents a great opportunity. She works on building interprofessional relationships between physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, medics, and corpsmen. 

“I like to bring in senior medics and corpsmen to teach in many of the courses that I conduct,” Tilley says. “It’s been a lot of fun and has been great to expose our students to the incredible talents of our noncommissioned officers in the military. It’s awesome being able to work with such amazing individuals as part of my daily practice.”

However, like so many others, Tilley’s biggest challenge of the last two years was having to adapt the MEM curriculum to accommodate the necessity for virtual learning brought on by COVID-19 so seniors could meet the graduation requirements.

“We had to redirect the courses so that they could graduate,” Tilley acknowledges. By working collaboratively, she adds, the department was able to maintain flexibility, ingenuity, and a lot of contingency planning throughout the pandemic. They needed to be able to execute courses critical to the students’ development, knowledge, and skills, as well as the graduation requirements.

COVID-19 had a huge impact on the Class of 2022, and Operation Bushmaster was the first time it was even legal for all of us to gather in literally YEARS! Our morale was in the toilet, but every time she stood in front of us, she modeled the professionalism, ambition, and energy that we should bring every day when learning how to save lives. Soon, we were all looking forward to “Tilley Time” and itching to take on the challenges that Bushmaster was going to throw at us.

We’re really lucky to have Maj. Tilley as a teacher, and I’ll be proud to call her a teacher and colleague once I get those two letters after my name!

― Air Force 2nd Lt. Loxley Godshall-Bennett, Class of 2022

“It was also paramount to keep them safe while operating in a space where there were times when we weren’t exactly sure what was happening with COVID-19,” Tilley says. “I think that COVID-19 has definitely kept me on my toes these past three years. Not one of my courses has looked the same because of restrictions that the virus has placed on us.”

Alongside all of the hard work of her department, Tilley stays true to her reputation and takes a moment to acknowledge the perseverance and strength of her students. 

“I don’t know if all the shifts in the pandemic would have been as smooth had it been a civilian medical school,” she says. “I think it really speaks to our students and their ability (and the university’s ability) to adapt the educational curriculum during a pandemic and still meet the mission requirements of the university.”

Tilley likes her courses to be challenging, pushing students to recognize what they don’t know yet. “I don’t expect them to know everything,” she says. “I try to identify some of the knowledge and skill gaps, while encouraging and inspiring the students to learn more. We’re fortunate that Gunpowder’s in their third year. They still have an opportunity to grow beyond that.”

Maj. Tilley has been one of my favorite female role models at USU. She is such a great example that a dedicated military leader can also be a wonderful mother and caring friend. She is proof that the military needs strong women.

― Air Force 2nd Lt. Sidney Peters, Class of 2022

Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley and HM1 Jeffery Thompson, her Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) for the Operation Gunpowder field exercise. [Photo credit: Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley, USU]
Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley and HM1 Jeffery Thompson, her Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) for the Operation Gunpowder field exercise.
[Photo credit: Army Maj. (Dr.) Laura Tilley, USU]

One of the most valuable lessons Tilley teaches is communication because it’s important when interacting with other healthcare providers. She stresses communication between the military physician and the commander and poses in-depth questions to her students, such as, “How do you talk to the line? How do you advocate for your patient while meeting the mission? How do you apply what you have learned in medical school and the hospital to the operational environment?” 

“It’s providing that confidence that they can do it, which may look differently than it does in the hospital,” Tilley says, adding that, “we’re giving them the opportunity to experience this before they have a residency and serve in their first deploying role.”

To Tilley, the priority for an impactful education comes down to an individual relationship between the teacher and the learner. 

“That’s my foundation,” she says. “It’s such a critical piece of why I’m at USU. Even though I may be involved in a lot of different things, I will stop and help the students because teaching comes down to the individual relationships that I’ve formed.” 

Reflecting on her path, Tilley acknowledges that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the relationships she’s held with phenomenal mentors along the way, and wants to continue to pay it forward. 

“It’s always been ingrained in me that it’s been my duty to do the same for students, and, however I can support and empower people to help them get to where they need to be, I will do it!”

I worked on a project involving a medical device with my classmate Brad Pierce known as STEAM (or System for Thermogenic Emergency Airway Management). I reached out to Maj. Tilley to see if she would be willing to be our faculty mentor for the project. She was completely supportive. I recall her emphatically saying, “How can I support you?”

It was because of her passion for her students’ success and for the potential of our collective scholarly work to save lives that she went above and beyond. She advocated on our behalf with individuals of influence outside of her work schedule. She made herself available to make sure we were on track both academically and professionally.

I genuinely believe that none of our accomplishments would have been possible if not for the mentorship or support of Maj. Laura Tilley. She’s a model military medicine physician and officer. She will forever be someone I’m grateful for, honored to have known, and aspire to emulate.

― Army 2nd Lt. Ryan A. Stevens, Class of 2022