From the Marine Corps to Columbia University and beyond: Tiffani Watts shares her story of rediscovering purpose.
Tiffani Watts spent nine years in the Marine Corps — 3,000+ days surrounded by other men and women who shared a common sense of purpose. What happens when, one day, you’re pulled from that environment and that sense of purpose simply disappears?
Many servicemembers say the most difficult part of transitioning from active duty back into civilian life is rediscovering purpose. Everybody has a role in the military, and day in and day out everybody executes the duties associated with that role to the best of their ability, knowing their brothers and sisters at their side are doing the same. If the military is a massive machine, a servicemember is a cog specifically designed to assure it runs smoothly. That cog can be replaced, but when it is, where does it go? Often, it’s sent back home and thrown into another machine (a classroom or a civilian job). The problem is, that cog operated in a specific way for years, and when it’s thrown into that new machine, how can we expect it to simply work?
This difficulty — fitting in, operating within a new machine — is the biggest challenge Tiffani Watts faced when she returned to civilian life in 2012.
Watts loved being a Marine. She was first trained as a legal services specialist in the Marine Corps, before becoming a Marine Security Guard. Her first deployment was to Fallujah, Iraq in 2005. She’d go on to spend time at the U.S. Embassies in Sofia, Bulgaria; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Lisbon, Portugal from 2007-2009.
Watts served for nine years before her time in the Marine Corps came to sudden end. A medical diagnosis in 2010 would eventually force her into early retirement.
“People ask me all the time why I left the Marine Corps after 9 years when I was so close to retirement,” she said. “The truth is, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and was medically retired. Marines must be 100% deployable and with a disease like Crohn’s, I need to be near a hospital.”
Transitioning is an unimaginably stressful period for veterans, and as Watts would be told, her disease was only made worse by high levels of stress.
This led to an increasingly difficult transition — one she admittedly struggled with. “Mostly I just didn’t know where I fit in and struggled to relate to people who hadn’t had the same experiences I had, especially other women,” she said. “After 9 years of the Marine Corps, it was strange to be a citizen on the street one day. I was used to going 100 miles an hour, and all of a sudden I just needed to sit in a seat for a couple hours at a time. It was painful, and I always had a hard time staying focused. I wanted to be moving. I wanted to plan things and do things. It took some time to figure out how to do that in my new life.”
One of Watts’ first moves was to pursue higher education — something no one in her family had done before. Not long after, she was accepted into one of the top colleges in the country: Columbia University. While acceptance was a massive accomplishment on its own, the next four years would prove difficult for Watts, as she quickly discovered it was going to take some time to learn how she fit into this new machine.
“I struggled with academics after a 10-year break since high school and sitting in a classroom for extended periods of time with some of the smartest kids in the world,” she said. “It was difficult to relate to traditional students and even other veterans at times.”
However, as I learned is a key theme with Watts, she persevered. And in 2016, she would graduate from Columbia with a B.A. in Political Science.
In order to get there, Watts said she had to rely on mentorship, primarily from Columbia staff and close friends. It was one of those friends that introduced her to FourBlock and its Career Readiness Program. “FourBlock was really involved with the Military Veterans of Columbia University, and I was referred by a friend who had worked with the program,” she said. “I met with [FourBlock Founder] Mike Abrams and [Vice Chairman] Chris Vasiliou to look over my resume and talk about career transitions and goals. They told me that I was going to be good at anything I tried and restored my faith in myself.”
Through FourBlock, Watts rediscovered her confidence and realized the skills she had developed in the military could have a great impact on her civilian career. “There are so many skills we leave the service with that we take for granted,” she said, “but employers could really benefit from them if they only knew we had them!”
Many FourBlock veterans “send the elevator back down” by returning to assist the foundation and its veterans, and upon completing FourBlock’s Career Readiness Program, Watts did just that. In its early years, Watts helped FourBlock grow as its Director of Development. “From the contacts I made through FourBlock, I really learned how to set up an organization’s fundraising plan as well as the myriad other tasks associated with nonprofit work.”
Around this time, Watts and her boyfriend, a Navy veteran, decided they’d travel the country in an RV following graduation. With that, Watts’ time with FourBlock came to an end. However, this journey would prove to be one of the most important of her life, because on that road trip, at its final stop, she’d rediscover something she had long been missing.
Their RV expedition came to an end in Maggie Valley, NC. There, Watts’ boyfriend took a job with a local paper, while she worked part-time as a freelancer. The two quickly decided to make the town their home. They love their new location — “The Smokies are amazing! A bear walked through our yard on Memorial Day!” she told me — but after 8 months of transcribing audio, a unique opportunity presented itself to Watts — an opportunity that aligned with one of her earliest passions: helping animals.
Watts says from the day she was born through her time in the military, dogs had always played an important part in her life. More so, she credits dogs — or a dog, Miko — with helping her through an incredibly challenging time in her life. “In one of my darkest moments, having Miko brought immense joy to my life and kept me moving,” she said. “She gave me a reason to get out of bed most days. I am forever grateful to her and will always be committed to protecting animals and finding them the love and care they deserve.”
With that in mind, you can imagine the excitement Watts felt when she came across a job listing for Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Haywood County, NC. She’d go on to land that job, and there, Watts would find something that had become unfamiliar, something she’d been searching for since she was medically retired from the Marine Corps all those years earlier: She’d finally rediscover that fleeting sense of purpose.
Watts quickly climbed the ladder within Sarge’s, resulting in her current role as the organization’s Administrator. With direction from the Board of Directors, she’s tasked with leading Sarge’s forward through fundraising, fostering donor relations, planning events, managing community outreach, and overseeing shelter operations and adoptions. She even offers up the personal space in her office for puppies, because “why not? I have one under my desk sleeping right now,” she said.
Sarge’s and Watts are making a huge impact in the North Carolina animal rescue community. In its 11-year history, the organization has saved over 7,600 adoptable animals by finding them their “forever homes.” Sarge’s is also helping reduce the number of stray cats and dogs by getting them off the streets, working to spay/neuter them, and ultimately find them a suitable family. Watts was also happy to report her county shelter has officially become a no-kill shelter, resulting in zero adoptable dogs or cats being euthanized in 2017. “It feels good to know we’ve been a part of that,” she said.
For the foreseeable future, Watts feels her place is with Sarge’s. With her new role, she’s hoping to build on Sarge’s success and take it to the next level. “We’re just starting on our work together and I have big goals for Sarge’s,” she said, “mainly increasing our community presence and cultivating a stronger donor base to ensure we can continue the mission for years to come. I’m focused on this community and our mission to continue saving adoptable dogs and cats and ending euthanasia.”
Watts’ perseverance is evident and her passion is strong. This is clearly a woman with a purpose, nobly and selflessly dedicating her career to rescuing animals. Like many, she struggled with her transition, but she stayed focused and never succumbed to the difficulties. And though the payoff wouldn’t come for many years, she says it was all worth it.
“It was scary and stressful at times, but I got through it and feel so incredibly happy with how things have turned out,” she said. “All of my combined experiences got me the job I have today, which I love.”
To other transitioning veterans, Watts leaves you with this piece of key advice: “Put yourself out there and try new things. I was convinced I was headed in one direction when I transitioned and ended up working on films, behind stage with theater, with nonprofits and event planning and a law firm. Look for opportunities to explore and find a mentor.”
You can learn more about Watts’ work with Sarge’s by visiting www.sargeanimals.org/.