Making Student Veterans’ Lives Better
By Tracy Seipel
Santa Clara Navy veteran and transfer student Ryan Taylan ’22 is working to establish a Student Veterans Center on campus, “somewhere to plant our roots.”
When he graduated as an honor roll athlete from Salinas High School in 2007, Ryan Taylan ’22 had the grades to attend college. But first, he wanted to try out a career, and then maybe an adventure. He got both in the decade that followed—working nearly three years as a bank teller, and almost seven in the U.S. Navy as an aviation technician on F-18 fighter jets.
“If you’ve seen the Blue Angels, that’s the older version of the same Super Hornet aircraft I worked on,” Taylan says proudly of the $70 million planes he learned to fix and later troubleshoot during his time at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Central California, and onboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. “It’s funny; in most of the movies when we see military planes, we think it’s the Air Force, but it’s actually the U.S. Navy,” Taylan explains. “Movies like ‘Top Gun’? That’s all Navy.”
By the time he left as a designated “Aviation Warfare Specialist” whose duties included organization maintenance and jet engine removal and replacement, Taylan had learned more about responsibility than most. As he says, “Every job is completed with the greatest attention to detail because the lives of our sailors are on the line.”
Yet Taylan never forgot about college.
“Watching my dad, who’s a financial advisor, I always saw myself in the financial sector,” says the Hollister resident and father of a six-year-old son. “I always wanted to go into business.”
During his Navy service, earn his associate’s degree online. Honorably discharged in 2018, he continued his undergraduate work in person at De Anza College with the ultimate goal of transferring to Santa Clara’s Leavey School of Business as a finance major, with a real estate minor. Before starting at SCU in 2020, Taylan also knew that the Post-9/11 GI Bill would help pay for his Santa Clara education, along with funding from SCU’s Yellow Ribbon Program and the Ahmanson Foundation’s Veteran Scholarship Initiative.
In the two years since, he’s made a host of friends, and has embraced his role as president of the SCU chapter of the Student Veterans of America. With the guidance of Raymond Plaza, Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, who also oversees SCU’s Veterans Support Services and helped with the launch of the student vets group on campus, Taylan and others have been working to establish a Student Veterans Center at Santa Clara.
We sat down recently to talk with the 32-year-old about his SCU experience and his goal to make student vets’ lives here better.
Being a transfer student can be challenging, perhaps even more so as a veteran and as a father. How did you find your community at Santa Clara?
At first, it was hard trying to make connections during the pandemic as a transfer student, as an older student, and as a veteran. Being a parent is another thing that makes me a minority on campus. But I made the best of it as I got to know the other students on Zoom, and then connected with them later on LinkedIn. When classes began again in person, I made sure to continue to build relationships with my fellow students and professors. Once I was back in class, it was definitely a challenge for my son and I to navigate our busy schedules, but we made it work. I’ve always planned my schedule around him, so when he’s in school, I’m in school.
Can you describe some of the highlights of your Santa Clara experience?
You make real connections with professors here, and they all want to genuinely make sure that you are benefiting from the class. They want to help you in your entire journey, and I’ve learned so much from these business professionals with real experience. I took a class recently on entrepreneurial finance and both of my professors, like many at SCU, are still active in their fields. It was fascinating to learn about IPOs, the different stages of funding, and most importantly the mindset of the professionals that make it all work.
The other great thing is the class sizes; they’re smaller, so you are able to develop relationships with other students and connect with the professors with great, in-person, feedback. Many of the professors talk about organizational structure. I've been a part of one of the biggest organizational structures in the world, being in the military, and it just lines up so well at Santa Clara.
What would be helpful to know about student veterans at SCU? For example, are they open to talking about their time in the military?
When you think about veterans in general, or veterans here in the Santa Clara community, we are all so very different. At Santa Clara, we have 50 student veterans on campus, mostly undergrads and some grad students.
Generally speaking, I would say that most veterans are proud of their service and are open to talking with others about their time in the military. I think veterans find comfort in talking to other veterans about tough situations because of the similar journey, but many will happily share their experiences if asked. Personally, I rarely lead my interactions with “I am a veteran” because although that’s a big part of who I am, it’s only one part. It is an honor to serve our country and the individual sacrifices often go unseen, so any appreciation and interest is welcome, but not expected.
Can you discuss some of the sacrifices?
One of the things people stereotype veterans as having is post-traumatic stress disorder. Some do, but there are other things, too—it could be anything from insomnia to anxiety, to physical issues. For example, because aircraft are designed really low to the ground, my knees and back took a beating, having to bend down so much of the time. There are a couple of veterans on campus that you will see who are older, and have some physical challenges. But most veterans you probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize, though there’s a few telltale signs: a lot of us will grow a beard within the first two years out of service, and you might notice some vets wearing an old command shirt or other small military issued items, like a belt buckle or dog tags, that are special to us.
What would a Student Veterans Center mean for you and other student vets at Santa Clara?
When I was at De Anza, I saw the number of vets who benefited from the services the college provides. They have a center there where they can find out about academic and VA benefits, job opportunities, scholarships, internships, and counseling. The hardest thing for us in growing and continuing to grow our Santa Clara Student Veterans chapter is that we don't have a Student Veterans Center. We don’t have an official place to meet, somewhere to plant our roots.
I think what most people don't understand is that having a center for student veterans—who might be nervous about interacting with others, or who haven’t been in an academic environment—would be so helpful. It would be a place where they could sit and study or do their Veterans Affairs work, where they can just pop in and say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so” and to see people smile and say, “Oh, you know, I’ve got a friend here, somebody I can put you in contact with.” Whenever I meet a new vet, I say, “Here's my cell phone number; give me a call or text me, and I will help you.” A Student Veterans Center on campus would be nice, because although we are very different individuals, we share a unique bond with 49 other individuals.
You’re older, wiser, and more experienced than your peers in class. What kind of life advice would you offer them?
I would say don't be afraid to fail, don't be afraid to follow, and don't be afraid to ask questions. The greatest lessons I've learned have come from trying new things, failing, and reflecting on those situations. And then working to get better.
The second point I made—don't be afraid to follow—is not to be confused with being a follower. To be a great leader, you also have to know how to listen and how to follow. That’s something I learned in the military; I had to learn how to follow before I could lead. In my first few years in the service, I was a sponge; I asked questions, volunteered for assignments, and I put the extra time and work into learning everything about my craft. It was a time of growth, and hard lessons and reflections, but I knew my time would come to lead. It’s what helped me become a leader for the Santa Clara Student Veterans.
Ryan Taylan '22 holds a set of his U.S. Navy dog tags. Photos by Jim Gensheimer.