Alumni Spotlight Series: Tyler Merck '08, A Life in Service

“The World is Our Classroom” has long been a mantra at Gill St. Bernards, one which has influenced the school’s core values, curriculum, and sense of local and global citizenship. Through its travel, service, and experiential learning programs, GSB works hard to empower students to think critically about social issues, to appreciate diverse perspectives, and to understand the ways in which one individual can impact their local community and the world beyond.

Even with such a deliberate focus on local and global citizenship, the immediate concerns of homework, sports practice, or arts performances sometimes overshadow the larger, more intangible lessons for students. As Tyler Merck ’08 discovered, he may not have recognized the influence these assignments had on his decision-making and life choices at the time he earned his GSB diploma, but the seeds of acceptance and service had been planted—and the roots went very deep.

“I wasn’t consciously aware of Gill’s emphasis on service and community when I was 17 or 18,” Tyler admitted. “Fourteen years later, I’m able to see how introducing a focus on the greater good and on the bigger picture very early on gave me a macro view of society and the world.”

While he may not have credited Gill’s influence at the time, Tyler's life of service began immediately upon graduation. He enrolled in ROTC at Auburn University, one of his only classmates to do so. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in History from Auburn, the former Knight spent seven years on active duty as a U.S. Army infantry officer. A majority of this time he served with the 1-504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“I’m very grateful for my time in the military,” the veteran reflected. “My family has served in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam to name a few. We have a long history of serving, so it is in my blood.”

Entering the military at such a young age wasn’t the easiest path, but Tyler credited the army with pushing him and showing him that he was capable of a lot more than he realized.

“The Army taught me that my baseline level of comfort is a lot lower than what modern society conditions us to believe,” Tyler said. “I learned I can endure a lot more than I thought I could, and I came out better for it. My experience was demanding, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Part of that demanding experience was being deployed to Afghanistan—twice. Tyler completed two combat tours with the 82nd Division, one in 2014 and one in 2017-2018. He understood that his post-college experience was dramatically different than many of his classmates’, but he also knew his opportunity to join the Army was limited. Once he grew older, the traditional option of securing a corporate position would always be there. The chance to be involved on the front lines of conflict would not.

“Our entire role changed between the first deployment to the second,” Tyler shared of his time abroad. “We shifted from being a fighting force to an “advise and assist” role. At the end, our focus was on training the Afghan soldiers and police force and to facilitate their ability to fight on their own and hold territory.”

During his time abroad, Tyler had the opportunity to work with individuals from across the country as well as the globe.

“Gill has such a huge focus on diversity,” Tyler recounts, “but I believe diversity is a truly underappreciated aspect of the military as well.”

GSB has historically been committed to the goals and principles of DEIC, and the school most recently solidified that commitment by incorporating specific DEIC goals within the 2019-2024 Strategic Plan. To define the concrete steps needed to meet those goals, the Board of Trustees then adopted the DEIC Action Plan in June 2020. As of August 2022, the school has successfully entered the final phase of the DEIC Action Plan and is proud to be meeting—and exceeding—the Strategic Plan’s goals and expectations to carry the work forward. In Tyler’s experience, the Army appeared to be doing the same.

“The Army has been comprised of different people from all over the country who have come together to work towards a common goal for decades—often with very little credit. I would argue historically they have been ahead of the curve in dealing with and overcoming the challenges associated with equality.”

Tyler suggested that the reason the Army had made such progress was, simply put, that they couldn’t afford not to.

“The military demonstrates our commonalities and encourages unity. Enduring real, often existential conflict puts that into perspective in a way no lecture nor slogan ever could. You gain an instant appreciation for, or perhaps a reliance on, unity: being a part of something bigger than yourself and working together towards a common goal—towards survival.

In the face of true adversity, the last thing on your mind is what differentiates you from those in your unit. In the middle of a foreign land, the accent, race, religion, or sexual orientation of the people around you tend not to even cross your mind. They’re American, they’re brothers, and that’s all that matters.”

As circumstances unfolded, the second stage of the mission in Afghanistan didn’t play out as planned, but Tyler held on to his drive and desire to make a difference in the world. He couldn’t shake the idea sown at Gill that an individual could have a positive impact and that everyone plays a role in the greater good.

“I began to see the world not just as my classroom, but as my workplace,” Tyler explained. “When I fulfilled my obligation to the Army, I knew I wanted to continue to serve. Law enforcement was the logical next step.” 

Like the military, local law enforcement appealed to Tyler because it would allow him to make a tangible impact on people’s lives. He enrolled at Florida State University, earning a Master of Science in Criminal Justice, and relocated to Tampa, FL, to accept a position with the Clearwater Police Department. His new occupation is in a different part of the globe with a different uniform, but the essential heart of the job is the same—to help people.

“It’s a different level of response,” Tyler said. “In the military, I was called into action twice in seven years. On the police force, I interact with people every day, sometimes receiving 20-30 calls in a day. It feels more personal.”

As part of the police force, Tyler no longer deals with conflicts on the same geo-political level as when he was a soldier; however, as the geographical scale trended downward, the day-to-day pace ticked steadily upward, and he finds himself actively engaged. The civilian lifestyle also has the added benefit of being stationed in one place.

“I moved around a lot with the Army which can become taxing,” Tyler admitted. “It’s nice to have consistency and to become part of a community.”

For an individual who appears to have found his place in the world, Tyler confesses to struggling with what his life plans were going to be when he left GSB. He didn’t join the military assuming a 20-year career, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in the long run. His advice to others in the same boat: don’t worry about it.

“Take a chance and do what you’re passionate about,” Tyler proposed. “Find something that gets you up in the morning and pursue it. Keep an eye on the short or mid-term, and don’t look too far out. Time goes by quickly—I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since I graduated from GSB! Do your best to enjoy it and have fun.”

An eye-catching metallic globe emblazoned with the Gill mantra “The World is Our Classroom” greets students daily. Even with this visual manifestation of GSB’s core belief, there are some who, like Tyler, will not realize the significance of the message as they dash past it on the way to Founders or the Athletic Center. However, if they take his advice and do what gets them up in the morning, they may find that their desire leads them to address social issues, to appreciate unity, and to realize that one individual can impact not just the local community but the world beyond. They may find that “The World is Our Classroom” will become more than just a tagline or cliché. The mantra will become a living reflection of who that student is and the values by which they live.

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