Tyler Derzay’s family tree is full of members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
His mother was a cryptologist in the Air Force and his father was a Marine infantryman. His mother’s father was a highly decorated Air Force pilot. One uncle was a parachute jumper in the Army Special Forces; another was a fighter pilot. Derzay’s career was determined well before the day he enlisted in the U.S. Marines.
Derzay, an NAU senior studying civil engineering, became a helicopter mechanic specializing in structural and hydraulic systems maintenance on AH-1 Cobras and UH-1 Hueys, both light attack helicopters. He found he had a gift for the work and enjoyed it, despite the loud, sometimes chaotic working environment. He also discovered a special skill—the Phoenix native was the only one in his unit unbothered by 100-degree days and able to keep working in what the Marine Corps considered extreme conditions. He was also a member of the base color guard while working at Camp Pendleton —he served as the rifleman who guarded the American flag during events.
In 2015, Derzay’s plans changed abruptly. After experiencing a severe injury, he was diagnosed with PTSD, which eventually led to a discharge from the Marines. He now needed a new life path.
That path was a little windier than he anticipated, but through the VA’s vocational rehab resources, researching a variety of different jobs and talking with his family about what he wanted for his future, he made a choice. With the aim of becoming a civil engineer, he found a new home and a new identity: Northern Arizona University Lumberjack. In his years at NAU, he’s found a community of other veterans and other engineers, he found the woman with whom he wants to spend his life and he found the passion for his new career path that have driven him as he worked through challenging classes and balancing different needs.
For his wife, Amanda, who’s watched Derzay become more confident in the classroom and settle into his future over the last two years—and who graduated in May 2020 and didn’t get to walk across the stage for her own graduation—knowing all that he has accomplished up to this point and what he’s experienced makes these moments even more special.
“It was really cool to just see his self-confidence grow, going from, ‘I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life, I’m not smart enough to be an engineer, to ‘hey, I just got accepted into the accelerated master’s program,’” she said. “I’m very proud of him, the man he’s become and the man he’s practicing to be. After everything that he’s been through with his life, he deserves to have this shining moment.”
Becoming a Marine
From 2012-2015, Derzay stayed busy on base. As a mechanic, he worked with composite materials and often was the first Marine on a job that required fiberglass, carbon fiber or Kevlar repair. He was the sole operator of the auxiliary hydraulic power support equipment used to provide helicopters with hydraulic power for diagnosing problems without starting the engine.
“I enjoyed spending my days out on the flight line being around running helicopters,” he said. “It was loud, it was busy, I was sometimes needed in two different places, but I loved it.”
For a year, Derzay supervised operations and safety at firing ranges, Military Operations in Urban Terrain (small-scale training facilities) and tactical vehicle simulators at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton Training and Operations. While there, he also served as a member of the base color guard for retirement ceremonies, funerals and other events. He was living the life he wanted until he was injured.
No longer an active Marine, Derzay wasn’t sure what to do. For the next two years, he hopped from job to job, his future unclear. He’d ruled out college before finishing high school, telling himself that he wouldn’t be able to do it. Eventually, he found a back-to-work program through the VA, and after multiple aptitude tests, his case manager sat him down and said his spatial aptitude test results were off the charts and he would make a good engineer.
“I originally told him, ‘I barely passed high school; I’m not smart enough to be an engineer,’” Derzay remembered. “He told me to think about it and get back to him within the week.”
He thought about it. His decision to join the Marines had come so easily because of his family history. Still unsure, he talked to his familyabout it. That conversation led to a surprising revelation about another piece of family history—his fighter pilot grandfather, Derzay’s role model all his life, who had died while he was in the Marines, had a degree in civil engineering. Several other family members were civil engineers. Suddenly, a path opened before him.
Becoming a Lumberjack
As a Phoenician, Derzay was familiar with Flagstaff, and he liked it—in the summer. Living here year-round was something else altogether. But he was committed to doing it. Part of his vocational rehab process through the VA was doing informational interviews with other civil engineers. He went to several in the Phoenix area and asked them all what school they would recommend.
“The response I received was, ‘We’re all Sun Devils here, but NAU definitely has a better civil engineering program,’” he said. “If I was going to get my degree in civil engineering, I wanted it to be from the best program I could get.”
Derzay applied. He was accepted. He enrolled at NAU and, well, the rest is history—his own piece of history that he gets to add to the family tree.
At NAU, he got involved, including with the Veteran Success Center (VSC), helping with Veterans Week and other events. He found himself at the VSC regularly; the staff, who are themselves veterans or part of the military-connected community, understand the VA bureaucratic red tape and the processes students must go through to access benefits like the GI Bill. He also got tutoring, did Veterans Week challenge courses and made connections there.
With his community in the College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences, Derzay helped develop the EPIC (Engineering Partners for an Inclusive Community) club, all while keeping his grades high enough to join the Blue Key Honors Society. In fact, he received the Outstanding Civil Engineering Graduate award and is the standard bearer for CEIAS at commencement.
Wilbert Odem, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Construction Management, and Environmental Engineering, has known Derzay for two years. They met in the hallway of the Engineering Building and later worked together in class and student organizations. Derzay made an impression from that first moment in the hall because he both knew what he wanted and was open to the idea of new possibilities as they arose.
“He was confident,” Odem said. “Tyler’s a forward-looking individual, aware of the path he has traveled already and how that is setting him up for what’s to come. Plus, he dresses real sharp.”
And the winters? Derzay was surprised to discover that, after a while here, he loves the snow and cold.
Becoming an engineer
Derzay isn’t leaving NAU just yet; he was accepted into the accelerated master’s program, and in a year, he’ll have a master’s degree in civil engineering, will take the professional engineering licensure exam and then work as a water resources engineer, providing municipal and residential water and wastewater engineering services.
He also shared a bit of wisdom for all the students coming behind him. It’ll make all the difference.
“The most important advice I can give to any student, veteran or not, is to get to know your professors. Introduce yourself on the first day of class,” Derzay said. “Stop by your professors’ office hours and ask them how their day is going. Ask them for career advice. Building a relationship with your professors will make you memorable, which could be a deciding factor between a high B and an A, or could land you a job/internship, or a well-written, non-cookie-cutter letter of recommendation. Thank them every chance you can.”
One of those faculty for Derzay was Rand Decker, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, Construction Management, and Environmental Engineering who met Derzay almost four years ago in class. Derzay regularly dropped by his office even when he was no longer taking Decker’s classes. He made an impression on his professor.
“Tyler’s courage, diligence and faith that he could, and our success in helping him ‘get home’ impress me,” Decker said. “War breaks things. It broke a piece off Tyler as a super young man still in his teens, but Tyler has not let that be the end of his story or all of his story. He’s a Lumberjack who’s pleased with himself and a pleasure to know—easy to be proud of and happy for. That’s what I see.”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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