Presidential Leadership Scholar Spotlight: Jared Lyon

Jared Lyon, 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholar and President and CEO of Student Veterans of America, discusses his passion for bridging the academic guidance gap for transitioning servicemembers and veterans.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your personal leadership project.  

Raised in Carver, Massachusetts, and later relocating to Orlando, Florida, during my senior year of high school, I discovered inspiration in President John F. Kennedy’s assertion that individuals should be able to take pride in responding, “I served in the United States Navy,” when asked what they did to make their lives worthwhile. This conviction impelled me to enlist in the Navy in August 2001, initially during a time of peace. However, the events of 9/11 unfolded during my time in basic training, transforming my service, and that of millions in my generation, from a commitment during peacetime to a duty in wartime. This transition profoundly influenced my worldview and ultimately directed my career path.  

My tenure in the Navy deeply instilled in me the values of leadership and service to others. Since taking on the role of National President and CEO of Student Veterans of America (SVA) in 2016, I have devoted myself to harnessing the transformative power of higher education for veterans. This commitment is underscored by the remarkable growth of SVA, which has expanded from 23 campus chapters in 2008 to an impressive 1,647 today.  

While participating in the Presidential Leadership Scholars program as a proud member of the class of 2018, I encountered a significant discrepancy. Despite 1.1 million veterans pursuing higher education, less than 1% were enrolled at America’s top 100 universities – as ranked by U.S. News & World Report – even though they had proven their success as students. Moreover, only two university presidents from these top institutions had military backgrounds. 

Recognizing this gap, my personal leadership project (PLP) during the PLS program was focused on bridging this divide. I spearheaded a project that adapted the U.S. Department of Defense’s prestigious Joint Civilian Orientation Conference (JCOC), tailoring it to orient university presidents from America’s leading institutions about the military broadly and the individuals who choose military service. My PLP, completed during my time in PLS in 2018, enlightened higher education leaders about the unique value of student veterans, fostering increased access and representation for this underrepresented group in top-tier universities. 

Please give us an update on what you have been working on since completing the Presidential Leadership Scholars program.

The past six years have been a whirlwind of professional challenges and personal growth. At Student Veterans of America, we navigated the complexities of the pandemic, which fundamentally altered our operations, learning environments, and engagement within higher education. Our primary focus has always been fostering a sense of belonging for veterans transitioning to civilian life, a challenge that became particularly acute from 2020 to 2021.  

During this period, our Washington, D.C.-based advocacy team and I worked intensively with Congress. We quickly implemented measures to prevent financial hardship for veterans and military family members using the GI Bill and other U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs education benefits, who were suddenly thrust into online learning. Our efforts culminated in legislation passed in just 11 days, a testament to the dedication of our team and the urgency of the issue.  

Adapting to the pandemic’s restrictions, our national headquarters pivoted its programming to suit the new normal. This experience not only refocused us on our mission but also invigorated our staff. Embracing lessons from this period, we transitioned to a remote-first approach, allowing us to hire talented individuals nationwide who are passionately engaging with our chapters. This shift has paid dividends, evidenced by an $8 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. This generous funding has bolstered our investments in people, programs, and transformative approaches to supporting veterans in higher education. 

Furthermore, the events of 2020, including the murder of George Floyd, highlighted additional needs within our chapters. We responded by establishing a Racial Justice Task Force to assist chapters in navigating difficult conversations and challenges, including anti-DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) state legislation.  

With a $5 million investment from RTX Corp., we launched the SVA Advising Center, bridging the academic guidance gap for transitioning servicemembers and veterans. More recently, a $1 million investment from The Walt Disney Company has enabled the development of the SVA Career Center, a comprehensive resource supporting student veterans in aligning their education and experience with meaningful career opportunities, shifting the paradigm in how veterans use their experience and education to find employment in their field of study while in college and making the transition to meaningful careers following graduation. 

On a personal note, the completion of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program coincided with the start of my doctoral journey at Syracuse University. I’m currently preparing for my comprehensive exams and developing my dissertation on the national security implications of higher education. On the home front, my wife and I celebrated the birth of our first son in spring 2020, followed by our second son in late summer last year. It’s been a period of profound growth and joy in the Lyon household.

Which lessons learned during the Presidential Leadership Scholars program have stayed with you the most, and how have you put those lessons into action?  

The Presidential Leadership Scholars program has significantly shaped my leadership approach, emphasizing the critical importance of shared influence and accessibility. A profound lesson that resonates with me is the understanding that possessing influence and access is meaningful only when shared generously and consistently. This guiding principle forms the bedrock of my leadership at Student Veterans of America and steers our strategic direction.  

PLS has instilled in me a deep appreciation for collaborative leadership, showcasing how the convergence of diverse perspectives leads to innovative solutions and more impactful outcomes. The program’s emphasis on cross-sector leadership, drawing insights from the leadership styles of past U.S. presidents, has played a pivotal role in shaping my leadership approach. It serves as a constant reminder that effective leadership transcends boundaries and sectors, drawing the best from each to create something greater than the sum of its parts.  

In my role at SVA, I actively put these lessons into practice by cultivating partnerships across a broad spectrum of sectors. This approach not only enriches our programs and advocacy efforts but also widens our perspective, allowing us to incorporate a diverse array of insights and experiences into our work. Such collaborations are crucial for enhancing the support we provide to student veterans, particularly those, like me, who are first-generation college graduates and come from enlisted military backgrounds.  

Moreover, the philosophy of shared influence has catalyzed initiatives that open doors for our student veterans, dismantling barriers and creating pathways to success that were previously unattainable. By championing inclusivity and diversity in our approach, we have effectively addressed the unique challenges and leveraged the strengths of the student veteran community in higher education.  

In essence, the lessons from PLS have not only been seamlessly integrated into SVA’s operational strategies but have also profoundly influenced our organizational culture. We strive to embody the principles of shared influence, collaborative leadership, and cross-sector synergy in every aspect of our work, ensuring a sustained, meaningful impact on the lives of student veterans and the broader community. 

How have you seen student veterans within your organization continue to lead after their time in the military? Can you share how they are uniquely positioned to do so?  

At our 16th Annual SVA National Conference, I had the privilege of presenting the Student Veteran of the Year award, the Chapter of the Year award, and a Presidential Service Medal. The nominees that stood alongside me on stage personified true leadership, stemming from their deep understanding of service. The student veterans in our network have shown exceptional leadership by advocating at a national level, highlighting issues and inequities, and striving to improve the educational journey for their peers.  

Today’s student veterans have harnessed the power of storytelling to not only normalize military service in a society with dwindling connections to those who serve, but also to acknowledge the realities of that service. Their narratives have opened doors to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women veterans, transgender veterans, and veterans of color. I’ve witnessed SVA chapters from rival football colleges unite in ruck marches to highlight mental health issues among veterans. There are stories of a student veteran cycling across the nation, sharing her journey of challenges and triumphs, and a formerly unhoused veteran walking from Pensacola to Tallahassee to share his transformative experience through higher education with Florida’s governor.  

However, the most common form of leadership I see in student veterans is their role as community changemakers. They ensure that everyone – whether a veteran, active-duty servicemember, National Guard or Reserve component member, family member, caregiver, survivor, supporter, ally, or friend – feels a sense of belonging. My decade-plus experience with SVA has shown me that while each veteran’s story is unique, there’s a shared thread of service that echoes in each narrative. Veterans leave the military with leadership training, but those who lead SVA chapters also possess a profound understanding of what it means to continue serving, translating their skills into compassion, empathy, and sacrifice for their new campus communities.      

You recently spoke on the state of SVA at its 16th Annual National Conference. Discuss what you envision for the future of the organization and how it will continue serving our nation’s veterans.   

I recently took my Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment, and it turns out “futurist” is among my top five strengths. This aligns perfectly with my excitement about sharing our vision for Student Veterans of America with the most integral part of our organization – our chapters. At our 16th Annual National Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, this month, I was thrilled to announce two groundbreaking initiatives: the SVA Advising Center and the SVA Career Center. These developments mark a significant milestone in our longstanding vision to support student veterans in their journey to, through, and beyond higher education.  

Yet, as student veterans, our journey doesn’t end here. We see vast opportunities to assist veterans in making informed educational choices that align with their personal and professional aspirations, even before they utilize their GI Bill benefits. We are actively working with colleges, universities, federal and state legislators, and other stakeholders to underscore the importance of effectively preparing those heading into military service.  

One such initiative is the Veteran Promise program, pioneered at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and now adopted by institutions like Syracuse University, CUNY schools, and all public universities in Nebraska – thanks to my fellow 2018 PLS classmate Nebraska state Senator Tony Vargas. This program guarantees enrollment to state residents who serve in the U.S. military and are honorably discharged, demonstrating a profound vote of confidence in our future servicemembers.  

Moreover, we’re spearheading a shift in societal perception of college success, not just for veterans but for all who take a nontraditional path to higher education. Over the past year, we’ve contributed to and guided research studies that deepen our understanding of veterans in both academic and professional settings. We’re now focusing on our own research to explore the true opportunity cost of serving our nation.  

While I can’t divulge too much at this stage, my ongoing doctoral studies are not just for academic enrichment; they represent a long-term commitment to supporting the veteran community. The future I envision for SVA is a vibrant, inclusive community where belonging is paramount. It’s a future where there’s no question about the value of higher education and the potential for those armed with a degree and a DD-214 (a certificate of release or discharge from active duty) is boundless. This vision encompasses not just veterans, but also active-duty personnel, National Guard and Reserve members, families, caregivers, survivors, allies, supporters, and friends, all united in a shared mission of educational success and empowerment.