June 27, 2022

Natalie and Tommy pose in front of houseNatalie Cobb, a current Community and Organizational Leadership major at Columbia College, was selected in May as one of 11 people nationwide, and the only South Carolina representative this year, for the 2022 Dole Caregiver Fellowship. This distinguished honor is presented to veteran caregivers, known as “Hidden Heroes.” The program serves as leadership training for these caregivers so they may more adequately navigate the systems in place for veteran healthcare and civilian life after military service. To kick off the two-year program, Natalie joined the other fellows in Washington, D.C., for the seventh annual National Convening, which brought together governing leaders, nonprofit professionals, corporate managers, along with caregivers to work toward policy and priority alignment, which will lead to a better future for these hidden heroes.

Natalie has been with Christian “Tommy” Neal, USAF and Army National Guard—her best friend, partner, and pre-and-post-9/11 veteran—for years. In that time, she has learned that much more goes into being a military veteran caregiver than one would assume. Organization, persistence, and knowledge on how to lobby for different issues and bills are just the tip of the iceberg. She believes that her education at Columbia College helped prepare her for all of it. Natalie feels that her Community and Organizational Leadership courses have particularly helped her in each of these areas, focusing on communicating effectively with an emphasis on social justice and creating a space for under-served communities at the table. Natalie hopes she can gain skills during her time as a Fellow that she can then use to represent and be a voice for other nontraditional veteran families.

Each of her courses has given her vital skills that she has already used during her time as a Dole Fellow and has allowed her to enter this new environment comfortably. For Natalie, she has been given real-life skills that have gone far beyond the classroom; her education has proven to run concurrently with her extra-curricular experiences.

When a family member approached Natalie to apply for the Dole Fellowship, she did not yet see herself as a Hidden Hero, which she laughs about now. She mused that it is consequently characteristic of veteran caregivers to be Hidden Heroes and not even realize their sacrifice and dedication to service. We refer to veteran caregivers as Hidden Heroes because they are extensions of their veterans’ service to our country and directly care for the men and women who have defended our nation through their service. After encouragement from friends and family, completing the application and interview process, and participating in the Washington, D.C. trip, Natalie says she is empowered by the preparation she receives as a Columbia College student and through her years of experience as a caregiver.

We are incredibly proud to call Natalie a Koala, and we cannot wait to watch where her experience as a Dole Fellow leads her next. The nation and our world are full of Hidden Heroes, and Columbia College is proud to call Natalie Cobb one of ours.

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