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Education is Opportunity

Ryan Soltes

My dad, Major Charles “Rob” Soltes, Jr., epitomized friendship, bravery, adventure, and kindness. A perfect day for him was watching Saturday morning cartoons and eating cereal with my brother and I, a trip to the beach to play in the waves and hosting extended family over for dinner – constantly wearing his larger-than-life smile.

But then, the worst imaginable happened. A month before my 10th birthday, my Dad was killed in Iraq. His mission overseas was to assist in rebuilding the healthcare infrastructure for the citizens in Mosul and the surrounding areas. But to me, at the time, he was simply there to help people and keep them safe. It tore my heart with confusion, denial, sadness, anger, and grief.

Before Dad had left, he crouched down, looked me in the eyes, and told me that I was the “man of the house” until he got back. He asked that I take care of mom, my younger brother, and the baby due in December. Little did I know, this ask of his would last a lifetime.

The tragic loss of my dad shook the family. I remember times my mom asked 10-year-old me how we were going to make it through. But we did – together. Leaning on each other and on the support of countless family and friends that rallied behind us. Soon enough, I had to start thinking of going to college.

To be honest, I did not want to go to university very much. I was not excited to go, and I procrastinated in submitting my applications. What ultimately got me to do it was my mom telling me that my dad would’ve wanted me to go. Yes, she pulled that card.

Mom was right: College ended up being some of the best years of my life. What I learned was that education is opportunity – the opportunity to engage with the world in ways that you simply could not without it.

I did not realize it at the time, but my mind was expanding with knowledge, and I was transcending my abilities to participate with others and the world. The better abilities that I have to engage with others, the more I can make the world a better place, one community at a time.

When my dad was killed, grief was a shadow over my life. This shadow never gets smaller – instead, life grows around it, and, over time, the pain is overgrown with life, experience, knowledge, and love. If not for college, I would have been stuck under this shadow of grief for more of my life. I’m sure that would have led to more sadness and poor decisions.

I achieved my bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology and master’s degree in organizational psychology, while serving in student leadership positions every year. After graduating, I worked at the Veteran Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System for three and a half years, doing employee and leadership development and process improvement. I learned many skills there from extraordinary people, and got certified in transformational coaching, lean six sigma green belt, and change management.

Recently, I have started my own business with a vision of decreasing mental health issues, personally and professionally, through helping others learn about and invest in meaningful social support. I believe healthy, authentic social support and community is highly beneficial for long term mental health and a purposeful life. In the workplace, it can mitigate burnout, stress, disengagement, and absenteeism.

I have achieved a lot so far, but I am just getting started. Much of my success can be attributed to the opportunities that higher education has offered me, and the wonderful people I have had with me along the way.

I would like to thank the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the donors and sponsors who support it. I could not think of a more sustainable and empowering cause to support than giving at-risk youth, tomorrow’s generation, the limitless opportunities that education can provide.

On behalf of myself and the other SOWF kids, thank you for investing in us and our futures.

– Ryan Soltes

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