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Answering the call: From the U.S. Navy to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

November 11, 2020

The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive intellectual community. Within its student body, a number of students are veterans of the United States armed forces, offering a unique perspective on the law that enriches and strengthens the Law School’s dynamic academic community.

Within that community, the Penn Law Veterans Club intends to break down stereotypes about veterans and servicemembers, ease the transition for veteran students as they start a new post-military path, and help inform prospective veteran students about studying law and life at the Law School.

“While our students learn from the professor standing at the front of the room, it is also important that they lean from the classmate sitting next to them and veterans bring a unique worldview that is invaluable to the classroom,” said Stephanie Thistle, Director of Recruitment, Associate Director of Admissions, and staff liaison for the veterans’ student group. “They come to the Law School with a history of service, sacrifice, and leadership skills that are developed under extreme circumstances. Their sense of duty and advocacy does not diminish once they leave the Armed Forces. They bring these qualities with them to the Law School and it creates a richness in the community that cannot be duplicated, but also compliments the other student organizations.”

Ryan Baldwin L’22 joins this tradition of bringing a diverse array of experiences to the Law School community, arriving after earning a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and serving eight years in the U.S. Navy.

Choosing to serve

Baldwin, who grew up near Harrisburg, sees choosing to serve as fulfilling a higher calling. After four years in the U.S. Navy ROTC program at Pitt, he joined the U.S. Navy Submarine Force as a Reactor and Controls Officer, responsible for the USS West Virginia’s nuclear reactor and its maintenance as well as leading the divisions associated with the operations maintenance of the reactor.

“I wanted to serve, and I wanted to have the experience of learning how to lead people, to be stressed and tested, which the Submarine Force was great for,” Baldwin said. “I wanted to have those experiences. And I knew as an engineer, I didn’t want to just be at a desk needling out more efficient processes. That didn’t really give me a sense of purpose. And I really thought with the military I knew I was working towards something larger, and that was really fulfilling.”

Baldwin arrived at the Submarine Force during a unique time – a shipyard overhaul and refueling where submarine nuclear cores are removed and replaced. In his role as an Officer, Baldwin had the distinct opportunity to supervise and conduct the initial physics and criticality tests on the nuclear reactor.

After working in the engine room, Baldwin ran Emergency Action Teams as a Communication Officer, leading a team whose job was to coordinate and validate the messages for the launch of nuclear missiles. He spent his other years in military service in San Diego with a Naval Surface Squadron, undertaking humanitarian need missions as well as working in Washington D.C. And after eight years in the Navy, achieving the rank of Lieutenant, Baldwin wasn’t exactly sure what was next.

“I knew I didn’t want to stay in the military, he said. “I felt like I had served, and I liked it, I enjoyed it, but I knew that particular aspect of service was not what I wanted to spend my life doing. I just didn’t feel the calling that I felt before. I felt like I could accomplish more in the private sector. At least more scalable things, not necessarily more important, but on a larger scale.”

Choosing to study at the Law School

While exploring job opportunities throughout Washington D.C., Baldwin also shifted gears away from Chemical Engineering and more towards the prospects of an MBA program. During his search, he came across the Carey JD/MBA Program and was drawn to the unique opportunity of studying the intersection of business and law. He sees the clear advantages of having a solid understanding of the law as a potential future entrepreneur and business owner, with room for greater opportunities to scale and make a more positive impact overall across a variety of spaces and focuses.

Baldwin also sees opportunity in technology to provide business innovations to the legal field, citing how the current COVID-19 era has led to remote courtrooms and legal representation.

“If remote video were to persist, we could provide so much more access for more people if their attorneys weren’t spatially limited,” he said. “An attorney could represent clients across an entire state as long as they were barred. It would lower legal costs overall, and for so many litigants who are representing themselves or getting default judgments because they can’t afford attorneys – it’s just a terrible plight but technology is opening that up. That’s why I picked the JD/MBA program, because it would expose me to these sorts of ideas and that’s where I’d like to go.”

Veteran Student support and engagement at the Law School

During his initial application to the Law School, Baldwin reached out to the Veteran’s Club, who were essential in connecting him with other current students with similar military backgrounds. He says the group helped facilitate his transition from the very beginning of the application process.

“It was incredibly valuable to me,” he said. “I still feel like I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the help of the Vets Club, so I try to give that back as much as I can.”

Now, Baldwin’s involvement with the Penn Law Vets Club is as an Admissions Rep, essentially fulfilling the role that helped him along his own journey to the Law School. In this position, he’s a direct resource between veteran applicants and the Admissions Office at the Law School, providing individualized guidance and feedback throughout the application process while serving as an ambassador to the Law School. In addition to his work as an Admissions Rep, Baldwin also works with Service to School (S2S), a non-profit that provides free college and grad school application counseling to military veterans and servicemembers, where he helps mentor and guide vets on their journeys, whether at Penn Carey Law or beyond.

“I really like being able to help vets through the process, even if they don’t end up coming to Penn,” he said. “It’s just about paying it forward and keeping that community going.”

As part of its mission, the Penn Law Veterans Club has helped organize Veterans Week at the Law School since 2018, which culminates in a week-long series of dedicated programming to engage and inform the Law School community about the experiences of veterans in the legal profession, and to honor veterans for their service. As part of that event, the Veterans Club usually hosts a panel discussion where attendees can ask student veterans anything about military service.

And while current COVID restrictions have limited the group’s campus activities for the time being, that doesn’t mean other students and members of the Penn Law community can’t engage with and learn from their peers who served in the military. For Baldwin, he sees a clear similarity between choosing the military and choosing to go into public interest law as a means of communicating that call to service.

“It really is about service and I think when you get to serve with people from all walks of life it’s wonderful,” said Baldwin. “I think one of my favorite things about veterans’ groups and having served in the military was just the exposure I got to all different parts of America from all different walks of life. We recruit from the entire country more or less, and I’ve spent time with the entire American diaspora, you get to learn so much about everyone’s culture and you get to breakdown biases and stereotypes that you wouldn’t have if you were always cloistered in some institutions.”

One lesson Baldwin carries with him from his military experience is how success or failure so often depends on a group’s ability to perform well, which ultimately falls on every individual of a group expertly doing their job despite coming to the table with different worldviews and experiences.

“It’s important to be able to look past our differences, whether or not they’re ideological, based on our upbringings or what we look like, and be able to see people and help each other accomplish our own individual goals,” he said. “It’s too easy to get wrapped up in one person believing one thing and that defining them – there’s so much more to people, we need to take time to appreciate the nuance.”