For many Penn Staters, their journey in Happy Valley ends just four years after it begins. But for Penn State student and war veteran Corey Tilghman, the process has been a bit more complex.
Tilghman grew up in Philadelphia before receiving a scholarship to attend State College Area High School through a program called “A Better Chance” in 2000. The program was designed to give minorities and students at inner-city schools a chance to receive more academic resources and a better education. Tilghman performed so well in high school that he eventually received a scholarship to attend Penn State.
Once Tilghman arrived at Penn State, he decided to pursue a major in supply chain management through the Smeal College of Business. He even walked onto the football team, but his time with the sport was short-lived and he quit the team after less than a year. Tilghman continued his academic career at Penn State for around four years, but before he knew it, a series of circumstances arose that forced him to permanently change his path.
“My mom died when I was twenty-two — she had been sick when I was in school,” Tilghman said. “I also had rent, jobs, a dog and cats, I had this whole life of responsibilities, and I couldn’t afford to finish my degree in a timely fashion. So then, feeling stagnant, I just decided to enlist.”
Tilghman officially enlisted in the Infantry Branch of the United States Army in 2010, though he never thought he would end up in the military. He always possessed an innate desire to serve those around him, however, as well as a high degree of athletic stamina from competing in sports over the years. Tilghman had also spent his college career training at Penn State’s LionHeart Fitness — before he withdrew, he even taught a few classes with long-time instructor Bruce Lombard. For him, the decision to enlist made sense.
But the job quickly took its toll. Tilghman was sent on full-year deployment and spent nine months in Afghanistan alone. The experience forced him to develop a sense of resiliency that would have been unfathomable to him before.
“There’s this sort of mindset that you expect to be the one to go next,” Tilghman said. “So you’re capable of doing just about anything if you expect to not make it through.”
Tilghman was eventually medically discharged after enduring two shoulder operations and an ACL replacement. After his military service came to an end, he decided to return to college in 2014 to finish his degree. He traveled back to State College to pursue a new degree in rehabilitation and human services through Penn State’s College of Education. Though he essentially had to start the college process over due to the change of major, he was hopeful about what the completion of the degree would bring — State College had been home to him in every sense of the word.
However, the war lingered in his body and mind. To this day, Tilghman still suffers from the effects of trauma that so often accompany military service. Since his discharge, he has lost five friends to suicide. Post-traumatic stress disorder and night terrors aren’t just occasional, but part of Tilghman’s everyday life.
“It’s a chemical change in your brain, so it’s not something I can just turn off,” he said. “There are triggers and there are situations that will intensify my disabilities.”
But for Tilghman, there was a light at the end of the tunnel: LionHeart Fitness, the place that had given him a sense of strength and belonging when he had attended Penn State years before. The veteran knew he wanted to find a way to volunteer once he returned to Happy Valley, and continuing his work with LionHeart seemed like the perfect way to deepen his relationship with the community. He returned to the gym almost immediately to once again train under Lombard. Today, he teaches beginners MMA, advanced MMA, and kickboxing, among other classes.
“He brings such a positive energy to the gym,” Lombard said. “He’s great with every type of student, and there’s a level of trust and comfort that he brings to the organization, as well. It’s immeasurable how important he is.”
Tilghman now serves as Lombard’s right-hand man, and his primary role as an instructor centers around checking in on students to make sure they learn techniques and exercises to the best of their ability. Tilghman and Lombard aim to not only teach their athletes how to compete but to show them how important it is to develop positive life values. Overall, having the chance to help someone else reach their goals has been one of the most important parts of the veteran’s healing process.
“I think it’s important to use all your hardships and channel it into something you’re really passionate about,” Tilghman said. “And that’s exactly what I try to bring to the gym, and even how I try to live my life in general. I really can’t think of a better group to work with and I don’t know what I would do without this supportive outlet.”
First and foremost, however, Tilghman is still a student. Focusing on his degree and career path gives him the drive needed to persevere even through his darkest days. In this sense, his military experience strengthens his desire to pursue a career in which he can help people on a day-to-day basis. Working at LionHeart has also played a key role in reaffirming that he chose the right major.
“What I would take from my experiences and from the work that I do is the ability to just work with a wide range of people,” Tilghman said. “I’d like to counsel veterans, and I think that experience helps a ton with that career path.”
Tilghman also has an emotional support dog named Remy, a three-year-old husky who accompanies him throughout various parts of his day. The dog helps Tilghman cope with the symptoms of his disability. In fact, Tilghman deems LionHeart, his schoolwork, and Remy the perfect trifecta — these three aspects of his life remind him why he decided to pursue his career in the first place.
“Without progression, without improvement, and without pushing ourselves to be better, I feel like we become stagnant,” Tilghman said. “I think life is an experience, and I don’t want to let my disabilities define me.”
Tilghman will complete his college courses during the 2017 fall semester before pursuing an internship as the final portion of studies. Though he faces challenges every day, he’s hopeful about what’s to come. Developing a relationship with the State College community has allowed him to look forward to a future of changing people’s lives for the better.
“I can find something good about every day,” Tilghman said. “If I can teach people a new technique or a new way of thinking, even if it’s just one person, that means I reached someone. I think that’s really fantastic.”