University of Tulsa alumnus Derek Hill is a U.S. Army veteran who recovered from a traumatic brain injury to attend The University of Tulsa and begin the journey to medical school.
Hill had one year of college experience when he joined the military in 2006. At 19 years old, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne infantry and stationed at Fort Campbell in Tennessee. Earlier than expected, his division received orders to prepare for a tour in Iraq, and in 2007 Hill left for the front lines of war. He had planned to make a career out of the military.
“It didn’t work out that way,” he said. “I think some doors were opened for me that I didn’t anticipate, and it set me on the course to get me where I am now.”
While in Iraq, the truck Hill was driving was hit by a roadside bomb, and he sustained a traumatic brain injury. He completed his deployment and returned to the states where he transferred to a unit in Washington D.C. Hill received occupational therapy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to regain aspects of his speech and relearn how to compartmentalize information.
“I was forgetting my memory instantly,” Hill said. “I had to retrain my brain to hold on to information that I was just given. I had to change the way that I operated every day.”
He kept a physical log of everything, tracking his life on note pads and setting alarms on his phone and computer. Over time, many of those methods became second nature. Regaining full mental capacity was difficult, but Hill said it sparked the idea of pursuing medical school. He was curious about the possibilities of college and began taking classes to earn an emergency medical technician license.
“My service and the interaction with a lot of the physicians that worked with me were a big driving force in considering a career in medicine,” he said.
Hill and his wife, both native Tulsans, returned home to be near family at the end of his rehabilitation. He wanted to find a college that would challenge him more than a state institution — a university known for its rigorous academic education and for the success of its students being admitted to medical school.
“I felt like TU was probably the best place to get that experience, and I definitely did,” he said.
Hill majored in biology/pre-med, taking as many courses as possible in areas such as virology, comparative physiology and parasitology. He completed his bachelor’s degree in three years while conducting research with a doctoral student and working full time. Hill said he experienced culture shock navigating the transition from the military to college. He was older than most of peers, had lived through combat and was new to the science discipline. Although his adjustment period was challenging, his regimented study strategy and careful alignment of life priorities helped him overcome the obstacles. The military taught him to take responsibility for himself and manage his time.
“Being able to stay coolheaded and collected under pressure translates well into the academic environment,” he said. “Not letting yourself succumb to stress — the effects of your environment — just being able to accomplish the goal that’s in front of you helps out a lot.”
Hill didn’t walk alone through his days at TU. In addition to his supportive family, he was mentored by caring faculty and staff who guided him through the process of attending college as a veteran.
“They were incredible as far as taking care of a lot of the work that I didn’t know had to be done,” Hill said. “The transition is flawless. I never had to worry about anything because they were on top of it.”
He advises fellow veterans to take advantage of the GI Bill and TU’s accommodations. The window to access the GI Bill is limited after service, and there’s no better time than the present to earn a TU degree.
“I would tell veterans to save their GI Bill and eligibility for TU,” Hill said. “My entire time at TU was 100 percent covered.”
Following graduation, Hill moved to Tennessee to attend Lincoln Memorial University and earn a master’s degree in anatomical sciences. When the time arrived to apply to medical school, Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences appealed to him. Hill preferred its strong emphasis on primary care and rural medicine.
“All of my family is from Oklahoma, so I wanted to be able to work in a state where I could give back to the communities I grew up in,” he said.
Currently, Hill is a first year medical student at OSU where he is considering specializing in emergency medicine. His experiences in combat continue to inspire his career goals. Hill’s wife of 10 years and three children remain his primary support system, encouraging him to put work and family first.
“There’s a saying that your families go through medical school with you, and that’s absolutely true,” he said. “She takes care of everything behind the scenes for me.”
Hill is on track to become a successful physician, but he won’t forget how TU paved the way. He returns to campus often to speak at Pre-Med Club meetings and mentor students.
“I think the faculty here are second-to-none, he said. “The experience was wonderful, and I gained a lot from my TU education.”