Eagle Grad Scores Space Force First
Zeroed in on his dream degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Zane Zylstra (’19) found that the right education provided a launchpad to some unexpected and amazing opportunities.
Fast forward a dozen years or so and Zylstra not only has the B.S. in Aerospace Engineering degree he always wanted, but he is also the first Prescott Campus alum to be commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Space Force.
“Embry-Riddle made sense to me on multiple levels,” Zylstra said. “I am an Arizona native, so I could stay close to family, I preferred the small school environment to the massive campuses offered at other public universities and, of course, Embry-Riddle offers a world-class education.”
Zylstra said that while he was focused on becoming an engineer, joining the military was not part of his original plan. But he convinced his best friend, Alan Pacheco, to come to Embry-Riddle with him and Pacheco agreed if Zylstra would join him in the Air Force ROTC program on campus.
“I initially viewed it as a practical way for me to earn a scholarship, but pretty quickly it became much more than that,” he said. “I ended up loving the ROTC program and camaraderie between the cadets. After I was commissioned into the Air Force, I applied to cross-commission into the Space Force and was lucky enough to get accepted. Detachment 028 at the Prescott Campus did a great job of preparing me for active duty. While I was a cadet, 028 won the "Best Detachment in the Nation."
For Zylstra, the satisfaction of serving comes with the knowledge that he is on the ground floor of a new service branch, something that hasn’t happened since the U.S. Air Force was officially created in 1947.
“The Space Force is very small right now, so there are not that many other lieutenants,” Zylstra said. “If you perform at a high caliber, your performance is more likely to be noticed and rewarded. Having been assigned to the program management career field, I felt that some of the coolest stuff happening in the military and industry is happening in space.”
In addition to the military introduction provided by ROTC, Zylstra also got the kind of solid academic and practical education foundation Embry-Riddle is renowned for.
“My favorite class had to be aircraft design and flight mechanics class, taught by Dr. [Billy] Crisler,” Zylstra said. “I had the opportunity to take those classes during a study abroad program in Southampton, England. It was an amazing experience to go to multiple aircraft museums around England and have Dr. Crisler teach us the principles of aircraft design with these amazing iconic, historic aircraft right in front of us. That was absolutely the best educational experience I've ever had.”
One of Zylstra’s favorite bits of life advice has always been, “bloom where you’re planted.” That mindset came in handy when Space Force assigned him to a program management role instead of an engineering one.
“At first, I was devastated because this goal of mine was crushed and it was completely out of my control,” he said. “However, I stayed true to my own advice, kept a positive attitude and tried my best and as it turns out, I actually love this career field!”
Looking back from his current career path provides plenty of perspective, especially when Zylstra tallies up all the advantages and perks that came with the Embry-Riddle experience.
“I am extremely grateful for my experience,” he said. “Not only did the school offer an excellent engineering education, but it is also the place where I met my beautiful fiancée Salma [Benitez] and some of my best friends. I can say with certainty that the decision to go to Embry-Riddle was one of the best in my life.”