Q&A with Director of Veterans Services, Ryan Ahl

Issue Date: 
November 2, 2015

The Office of Veterans Services supports veterans enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh by offering programs designed to ease the transition from military service to academic life. Director Ryan Ahl spoke with the Pitt Chronicle’s Matt Cichowicz about how his experiences as a soldier and a student led him to helping other veterans as they pursue higher education.

What attracted you to the military?

Ryan Ahl

I grew up in a military family. My father served 20 years in the United States Air Force. From a young age, I had wanted to serve my country and be a part of something bigger than myself. I was a senior in high school when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, and that had a huge impact on me. As soon as I was able, I enlisted in the United States Army to be an infantry soldier. The military has a fantastic reputation for training and preparing servicemen and women to accomplish purposeful missions under any circumstances. The chance to be a part of an institution like that was very attractive to me, as was the great camaraderie and privilege of serving my country. 

Where have you served?

Tikrit, Iraq, 2004-2005; Taji, Iraq, 2009

What impact has military service had on your life?

It has certainly made me a better and stronger person. The military provided me with the training, experience, and opportunities to help me mature as a person and as a leader. It also gave me lifelong friends who I know I can count on for anything. It opened my eyes to the experiences that so many other people in the world go through, especially in a war zone. Those experiences offer a lot of perspective on life and what is important.  

What brought you to Pitt, and what do you enjoy most about working here?

Shortly after I finished my graduate degree in education at Slippery Rock University, I was looking for local career opportunities in higher education. When I saw the opening at Pitt, I was very excited. I knew that I could connect with the students on a personal basis and be helpful in guiding them through their transition to higher education and navigating their military educational benefits. Additionally, the commitment that Pitt has shown to the military and veteran community through the Office of Veterans Services was very attractive to me. 

How many veterans on the current G.I. bill are at Pitt, and what is the most popular service they use at the Office of Veterans Services?  

There are more than 500 veteran and military-affiliated students on the Pittsburgh campus and more than 700 throughout the entire Pitt system. These include veterans, active duty service members, National Guard and Reservists, and military family members. The Office of Veterans Services offers a wide array of student services, including assistance in applying to the University and in using their military education benefits, career services, and veteran alumni functions. Of those, the most widely used service is assistance in navigating the complex military education benefits process. 

What are some of the challenges for veterans pursuing higher education?

As nontraditional students, veterans face some unique challenges in pursuing higher education. They are older than traditional students and typically have careers, families, or other activities outside of school. There may have been a significant amount of time since the veteran student was last enrolled in an educational institution and when they arrive at the University of Pittsburgh. Additionally, orienting themselves to a new institution can be challenging, which is why the Office of Veterans Services hosts an orientation and transition workshop for all new veteran students. 

There also are significant differences between how a veteran was trained in the military and how he or she is expected to learn in a university setting. Nevertheless, veterans have shown that they are very successful students. The strengths that they develop in the military such as mission orientation, teamwork, time management, and attention to detail serve them well in their transition to student life.