By Lindsay Key 

After serving for more than 20 years in the armed forces, many veterans look forward to spending retirement relaxing and enjoying recreational sports like boating, hiking, and fishing. However, Ryan Donner, 39, a soon-to-be retired Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy and an XMNR19 alum, shows no signs of stopping. Instead, he is getting started on his second career; and although it may include some boating, hiking, and fishing, it will be in the form of helping others do it safely and legally.

After graduating this past December, Ryan is pursuing a career as a Natural Resources Police Officer—a position that he feels draws on his experiences serving in the U.S. Navy and as a graduate student in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech. Natural Resources Police Officers patrol state-owned lands and enforce conservation and boating laws. Ryan lives in Annapolis, Maryland, and was just accepted to the state of Maryland Department of Natural Resources as a Reserve Officer. 

The XMNR degree is a cohort-based year-long program that encourages students to explore a wide variety of sustainability topics, with a focus on systems thinking and leadership development. Students network with peers across the nation and globe when they attend monthly meetings at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS) located in the Washington, DC, metro area. 

At the last class meeting in December, Ryan donned his Navy uniform and gave an X Talk—a brief presentation, similar to a TED Talk, given to peers and faculty members in the program. CLiGS faculty Patricia Raun, also a professor of theater at Virginia Tech and the Director of the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science, designed the assignment. The goal of the assignment, said Raun, was to help students reflect on a transformational moment, experience, or discovery while in the program that helped broaden their perspective and enriched their understanding of the concepts of leadership, global mindset, and sustainability.“Through much of my work with the students I stress the importance of storytelling and making personal connections with others,” Raun said. “This assignment gives the students an opportunity to think deeply about a pivotal moment in their development, and to exercise the storytelling skills they are developing, while creating a digital record of an aspect of what they value as a leader.”

For his talk, titled “A Defined Purpose but an Undetermined Future,” Ryan spoke about his experience working as an aviation structural mechanic in the U.S. Navy, and how, after 20 years, he knew that he didn’t want to work on aircrafts after retirement from the military. So, he brainstormed with his wife about other career paths he could pursue, and she suggested that he look into natural resources.

Growing up on a dairy and grain farm in Twin Valley, Minnesota, and going fishing with his grandfather, Ryan developed a love for the great outdoors early on and has carried that into this adult life as a husband and father. When he looked into attractive careers in the field, however, he realized he needed a degree in natural resources. Luckily, he had earned financial support from the G.I. Bill, which provides educational assistance to service members, veterans, and their dependents.

“This year has been a mental shift, of ‘This is all I know and this is all I want to do’ to ‘Wow, there is something else I can feel comfortable leaving the service to do,’” said Ryan. 

He recalled the first weekend he met with his cohort, when they were given Legos and asked to build “something” as a team building exercise. He was paralyzed.“It blew my mind because I’ve been so institutionalized by instructions, and when it comes to sustainability, there is no instruction guide. Most of the things you have to deal with in our field require you to think outside the box,” said Ryan.

Ryan recalled that during the program, the classes that focused on the connection between wildlife and environmental sustainability resonated most with him.

“Protecting wildlife and preserving it for future use and enjoyment is important, not only for us, but to keep the whole ecosystem healthy,” he emphasized.


Ryan Donner is a 20-year veteran of the United States Navy, where he served in a variety of posts. He is scheduled to report to the USS Iwo Jima in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2021, and is planning to retire from active duty service in 2023. Ryan holds a B.S. in Workforce Education and Development from Southern Illinois University and an Executive Master of Natural Resources from Virginia Tech.