Photo by Jim Boyle

Ryan Lucas, a 2011 graduate of Spectrum High School, gave the keynote address at last week’s commencement exercises for the Class of 2021.

Doctoral student who started in Army National Guard has been published abroad in New York Times

by Jim Boyle


Ryan Lucas graduated from Spectrum in Elk River in 2011 before joining the Minnesota Army National Guard. He had a love of learning, but was unsure the exact direction to apply it.

He’s now a Ph.D. candidate with experiences as a photojournalist and writer with some very specific ideas on the direction of his life. The son of Dave Lucas, the chairman of Spectrum’s board of directors, spoke to more than 70 seniors before they received their diplomas May 27.

With just 10 years under his belt after graduating from the Elk River public charter school, he was hesitant at first to give advice when he himself was still a student. He decided to focus on three pieces of advice he has gotten on his journey that have helped him become photojournalist, writer and doctoral student in the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Athens.

He started with some background information on himself.

Excited to go to college but unsure of what he wanted to study, he made the decision to join the Minnesota Army National Guard. After graduating from basic training, finishing military police school, and attending courses at a smaller university, Lucas said he found himself in the Twin Cities enrolled in the University of Minnesota.

“But I still didn’t know what I wanted to study yet,” he said. “And that was OK. Although I was undecided about the particulars, Spectrum had equipped me with a priceless love for learning that prompted me to explore several fields of study.”

After another year, he focused some energy on the humanities, developing a keen interest for history and how history relates to current events, writing, and photojournalism.

“At the U of M, I made friends with people who shared my passions, and the professors I studied under filled me with excitement for what might lay on the horizon should I continue to pursue my interests.”

Trying to discover the crossroads between history, writing, and photojournalism, Lucas said he took several short international trips in which he networked with as many journalists as he could and by the time his contract with the National Guard was over and he had graduated from the U of M, he couldn’t wait to pursue higher education.

That summer he packed his life into three large bags, moved to Greece and began a master’s degree program at the University of Athens.

“Athens changed my life. I was surrounded by history: afternoon strolls among the ruins of the Acropolis. But I wasn’t only surrounded by ancient history, I found myself right in the middle of history’s very front lines, being forged by the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis that was, and still is, changing the face of southeastern Europe. I started a portfolio and began working as a photojournalist by providing images for several writers who were reporting on the crisis from Greece.”

His experiences supplemented his academic research, which began more and more to focus on the subjects of identity and political history.

“Working so closely with so many refugees had a profound impact on me, and I now knew for certain that I wanted to stay in this line of work,” he said. “Once my master’s program was over, I faced a crossroads. Where to next? I came back to Minnesota for a little while, but within six months I was gone again, having accepted a position as a photographer in the public affairs office of a U.S. Army unit based in northern Italy.”

For nearly two years Lucas provided images and wrote articles about all kinds of things related to the U.S. Army in Europe, from force modernization to the training of NATO allies across Europe and the Middle East to the response to COVID-19.

“I’ve been published in the New York Times International Edition in Greece, the National Herald in New York City, Business Insider, The Army Times, Stars and Stripes, CNBC, United Press International, the Modern War Institute, and the media wing of the Department of Defense, to name a few,” he said.

Last year, he decided to temporarily move journalism to the back burner and head back, once again, into academia. Enrolled in the University of Athens, he is now writing a doctoral dissertation, which he will defend in several years, and he couldn’t be more excited. Additionally, he is writing his first novel, which he hopes to have published sometime next year.

Along the way, he has received some remarkable advice that has helped him press on, focus his efforts and not forget to enjoy the ride.

Three pieces of advice

This first piece of advice came from a National Geographic photographer after he asked her what advice she could give a young photojournalist with almost no experience. Her response: “Get out of your comfort zone.”

“Comfort zones are a strange thing,” Lucas said. “What’s comfortable for one person might be absolutely uncomfortable for another. They are, by their nature, subjective phenomena, as we all experience comfort and discomfort differently, based on our unique experiences and paradigms. The benefit of discomfort zones is not found in some quality of the place that can be mined like a resource of the Earth. Rather, the benefit exists in the way we experience the discomfort. Discomfort yields growth. Discomfort yields invaluable experiences that change the way we relate to and navigate our environments.”

Discomfort is not in short supply in this world, Lucas added.

“If you seek it out, you’ll find that your personal and professional growth will wildly outpace that of your peers who stay confined to their comfort zones.”

The second piece of advice was given by a journalist of the London Times who was reporting on the war in eastern Ukraine in 2016.

After learning about this person’s life and experiences, Lucas told him about his plans to get more into photojournalism after finishing his bachelor’s degree, and for the time being he was photographing weddings and was quite content with it.

The person told Lucas: “You’re never going to be some Magnum war photographer if you keep photographing weddings.”

Lucas said he didn’t want to believe it.

“I loved weddings and thought that I could balance them alongside the field of photojournalism,” he said. “I quickly realized that he was right. Trying to balance so many skills only makes you a jack of multiple trades and not a master of one. The advice can be boiled down to this: When you’re chasing something, relentlessly chase it. When you identify a goal, pursue it without getting distracted by too many other things. You’re allowed to change your mind about what you want to pursue, that’s only natural and it will happen to all of you many times. But when you’re chasing something you want, get after it. Keep it in focus.”

The last piece of advice he got came to him from a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, who experienced some of the very worst things that a human can experience on this planet. And then he wrote a book about it.

“I read the book while I was in college,” Lucas said. “It was gut-wrenching.”

A few years later, Lucas heard that he was going to be speaking at the opening of a new exhibit at a local museum. Lucas went and met him.

“He was kind to me and very humble,” Lucas said. “He gladly signed my copy of his book. When I opened the book later to see what he had written, this was his simple advice: “Treasure each moment.”

Lucas said those three words that are incredibly easy to forget and incredibly difficult to implement.

“You’re going to find yourselves in situations that aren’t fun,” he said. “You’re going to find yourselves up against what seem to be impossible circumstances. You’re going to face difficult decisions. When I look back on those times in my life, those times that I truly was outside of my comfort zone, I realize that those seasons were actually quite wonderful, in their own way. They were some of the most formative, the most challenging, the most enlightening experiences of my life. When you find yourself in those situations, remember to treasure them. They are fleeting.”

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