After spending six years as a combat medic with the U.S. Navy, Ryan Magsayo knew it would be hard to adjust to his life back to civilian life, especially life as a college student. He had been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan during his time in service, working on the front lines to treat other service members. When symptoms of PTSD brought him back home to Chicago in 2012, Ryan’s family recommended City Colleges as the best place to start his college journey.

Ryan was an underclassman at Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world. The devastating events inspired him and his older brother, who both spent their early years in the Philippines before immigrating to Chicago, to enlist in the Navy after high school. Ryan served from 2006 to 2012 before coming back home and deciding to advance his education.

“I struggled getting back into school,” he said. “The traumas from my time in the service had impacted my brain.”

Ryan began his journey at Wright College in 2015, taking classes on and off while he received treatment for PTSD. His original goal was to study biomedical engineering and pursue a career in the medical field, so his advisor recommended that he take chemistry with Dr. Doris Espiritu.

When Ryan got to the class, he was not only interested in the material, but he was intrigued by the community Dr. Espiritu and her students had created. He soon learned that many of them were part of a cohort of students in the Engineering Pathways program at Wright.

“They were all learning together and having fun,” he said. “It was something that I had missed in a college experience because I went straight to the military.”

Longing for that type of experience, Ryan joined the program, simultaneously realizing that a career in the medical field wasn’t suitable for his mental health. He continued to struggle with his treatment, but support from his family, Dr. Espiritu, and Bryan Soske, the veterans services specialist at Wright, motivated Ryan to keep going.

He joined several engineering-related clubs and organizations, gaining leadership experience and building friendships, but relied on the Veterans Services Center for a different type of connection—one with other veterans. Ryan recalls Soske’s “open door” policy and took advantage of the opportunity to not only inquire about resources but share experiences with other military-affiliated students.

“The veterans center gave us a space just to talk between our classes,” he said. “Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to continue.”

As he was finishing up his Associate in Engineering Science and planning his next steps, Ryan set his sights high. Because of Wright’s Engineering program, he had guaranteed admission to the Illinois Institute of Technology, but he decided to apply to Columbia University, an Ivy League school, anyway.

Ryan got the news that he had been accepted around the time he was graduating from City Colleges. He emailed Dr. Espiritu, who had written one of his letters of recommendation, right away.

“Do it!” she replied, and Ryan decided to take his professor’s advice.

Now in his second year at Columbia University and living in New York City, Ryan is embracing all of the changes he’s decided to make. He took the math skills he built in the engineering program and is applying them to a bachelor’s degree in economics. He may add visual art as a major, too, as hopes to one day start an arts-related non-profit for veterans. His own art has been featured in the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, and the Art Institute of Chicago as part of a partnership with the non-profit organization CreatiVets.

One aspect of his life that hasn’t changed is his treatment plan. In addition to his rigorous studies, Ryan is in treatment three times a week for his PTSD. He understands the trauma of his time overseas may be with him forever, but instead of looking down on that, he’s decided to embrace it as part of him.

“I have to go to treatment in order to complete my courses, he said. “And it’s hard, but it’s doable. That’s what Wright taught me—that I can endure.”

As he continues to not only endure, but succeed, Ryan has a reminder of where he got his start in his Manhattan apartment.

“I bought a giant white board online to bring a piece of the Engineering Center at Wright to my living room,” he said.

It reminds him of the community he built at the college and what he’s been able to accomplish so far throughout his journey. Even having been an older student with different life experiences, Ryan still felt like he was just “part of the group” at Wright.

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