Ryan Pavel is a 2023 United States Obama Leader, a Marine Corps veteran, and the chief executive officer of the Warrior-Scholar Project Opens in a new tab . We spoke with Ryan at last week’s Democracy Forum about his inspiring journey, the role veterans play in strengthening democracy, and how the Obama Foundation Leaders program has impacted his work so far.
Ryan was intrigued by the idea of serving something bigger than himself, and working alongside peers to accomplish a mission that would fortify and contribute to his country.
“The Marine Corps did exactly what I hoped it would. It kicked me into high gear, exposed me to people and cultures I had no previous experience with, and helped me find purpose and direction,” Ryan reflected. “After five years and a couple deployments later, I knew that the next step was higher education. Unfortunately, I found an extreme lack of support from the military on this transition. There was a ton of misinformation about higher education, and I had to do a lot of my own research in order to figure out how to succeed.”
In the year after he graduated, Ryan discovered the Warrior-Scholar Project model.
“The ‘for us, by us’ model is powerful,” Ryan shared. “So, I threw my hat in the ring to help the project expand—and I just couldn’t get enough. I kept coming back year after year, all the way up until they offered me the opportunity to come on board full time.”
Ryan started his journey with the Warrior-Scholar Project back in 2013, initially as a volunteer shortly after the nonprofit was founded. Over the next five years, he worked part time to launch an academic boot camp at the University of Michigan, his alma mater.
Fast forward years later, Ryan eventually became the chief executive officer.
“This work is deeply personal to me and I want to do everything I possibly can to help more enlisted veterans succeed,” Ryan shared. “This program truly transforms the lives of its participants and it’s an honor to now serve as the CEO. I oversee a brilliant team and work with a deeply engaged board to build our strategic plan and bring it to life.”
After years in his leadership position at the Warrior-Scholar Project, Ryan decided to enroll in professional development programs. For the past few years he has been searching for the right fit, applying to a variety of programs, and even getting rejected.
“Rejection is an important part of my professional path, as it is for just about everyone, and I don’t think we talk openly about it nearly enough,” Ryan explained. “In hindsight, I am very, very thankful I didn’t get accepted to those other programs because they would have precluded me from participating in this inaugural Leaders USA cohort at the Obama Foundation.”
A colleague recommended he apply to the Leaders USA program.
“I started filling out the application almost immediately, but then I looked at the questions and realized that this was going to take a substantial amount of time,” Ryan shared with a laugh. “The second question is one that I will never forget: ‘What makes you, you?’ I had never been asked that before in any context, and it stopped me in my tracks. I really had to process that question and think about how to honestly answer it. As I thought about my answer, I got really excited about the prospect of being a part of a program that really drills down into one’s core identity. That’s what needs to happen in order for real change and growth to happen.”
He says getting the program acceptance email was surreal.
“The Leaders USA program has been transformative and I don’t throw that word around lightly,” Ryan said. “It has pushed me into deeply uncomfortable places, it has made me strip down some core beliefs and really analyze how I’m approaching the world and my work, and it has put me into intimate conversation with some of the most talented and experienced leaders I’ve ever met.”
At the time of this conversation, Ryan was attending the Obama Foundation’s 2023 Democracy Forum in Chicago where topics like threats to democracy, artificial intelligence, and active citizenship were at the forefront of discussions.
“Our democracy is in jeopardy, and it is going to take all of us doing hard, hard work to save it,” Ryan explained. “Enlisted vets can and should play a pivotal role in making that happen. My favorite moments at a Warrior-Scholar Project boot camp are when we have veterans with wildly different beliefs, representing all shades of the political spectrum, respectfully and constructively debating the constitutional framework in a conversation led by faculty from esteemed institutions and their fellow veterans.”
In Ryan’s experience, reaching across political lines is the type of engagement that leads to real, tangible change.
“We focus our humanities boot camps on this exact thing —the foundations of democracy. We found that it is the perfect topic to elicit deep, probing viewpoints and conversation that is relevant to the fabric of our society,” Ryan explained. “And we have seen time and time again that enlisted veterans, who raised their hand to swear an oath to the Constitution and this country and then carried out their duties honorably, are particularly well-positioned to tackle those questions.”
Ryan believes that enlisted veterans have unlimited capacity for impact.
“When veterans are equipped with education and fully supported, they are the ideal citizens that can help positively influence the direction our country takes,” Ryan shared. “They are an essential ingredient to the recipe of what it will take to save our democracy.”