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Navy veteran sails away with ASU linguistics degree

ASU English (linguistics) graduate Ryan Lee / Courtesy photo

Graduating ASU student Ryan Lee, a U.S. Navy veteran, poses with his violin, which he says he used as a "coping mechanism" when feeling lost after leaving the service.

April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Arizona State University student Ryan Lee graduates this spring with a bachelor’s degree in English (linguistics); in some ways, this has always been his path. He has had a love of words his whole life — his friends used to call him a “walking dictionary” — and he thrilled to rigorous language research once introduced to it.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Lee’s interest in linguistics was further piqued during international deployments to Greece, Turkey, Dubai, Bahrain, Oman and France. At ASU, he studied Japanese and had the opportunity to survey languages like Kabardian and Old Egyptian in his upper-division course work.

French author Marcel Proust said: "The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Lee’s experience certainly bears this out: combine military travel with ASU language training and an appreciation for diverse cultures and voila! A linguist is born.

Hoping to become an international liaison, Lee won’t return to his hometown of Rialto, California, after graduation but instead will remain in the Valley of the Sun to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management at ASU.

We asked Lee a few more questions about his time at ASU and plans for the future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: Once I had traveled abroad, I knew that I wanted to be in a field that would allow me to expound my word knowledge, learn languages and travel frequently. When I began to show affinity for learning languages in college, I was introduced to linguistics as a field of study. It encompassed everything that I was looking for, and that's when I had my "aha" moment.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A:  When I took “English in its Social Setting” with Patricia Friedrich at ASU’s West campus, it completely changed my mind about the English language. It demonstrated the importance of why it is better to describe and observe language than to correct the way that a person speaks. I learned about the dialectical variations of the English language and how language works in modern society. A few classmates and I were led to research in political discourse and applied linguistics in the following semester, and analyzed the impact of technology and language in modern political discourse. [This] led me to study even more words, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU to further my academic endeavors because of the number of programs and the number of foreign languages that I could study. I had been out of the U.S. Navy for about a year and was finishing my associate's degree at a community college in Virginia. I wanted to escape the cold and my family was back West and was looking to move again. I had a friend who was a student and needed a new roommate around the same time, so I drove from Virginia to ASU after I got accepted and could not have made a better decision. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: One bit of advice that I would give to those in school is to make sure that they align their degree with a job in mind and couple their degree with a few years of experience because the job market has definitely shifted over the years. Those students who are still in school should really know why they are in college and earning the degree that they are pursuing.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is definitely the [Durham] Language and Literature building (LL) because that's where most of my classes were, and it's the one place on campus where many different languages are spoken from learners to native speakers. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am proud to say that I have been accepted into Thunderbird School of Global Management's Master of Global Management program for fall 2018. I am looking forward to the "global mindset" education and the networking possibilities. After I went to Thunderbird's preview day and met so many people from all over the world, I knew that Thunderbird was the place that I wanted to complete my graduate degree. It has been a long journey from active duty to veteran, community college to university, and now going off to graduate school. I couldn't be happier with this decision, and look forward to making an impact as an international liaison and consultant and can increase my chances at becoming a polyglot.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: With $40 million to solve one problem, I would want to assist the veteran community and tackle homelessness and mental health issues. These are some of the main issues plaguing the veteran community. I remember when I first got out of the service, it was difficult to reinvent myself and switch careers. I believed in my education and used my violin as a coping mechanism so that I could focus on making my educational aspirations come true. I want veterans out there to know that they are not alone and that there are positive outlets available to help with the transition from service to society.

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