Aviation Student Ryan Sarria Reaches New Heights at Mercer County Community College

Sarria Excels Academically and Finds Community with Fellow Veterans


West Windsor, N.J. – Ryan Sarria, a military veteran who enrolled at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in January 2020, is close to fulfilling a dream he has had since childhood: to take flight as a certified airline pilot.

Sarria was raised on the east coast of Florida, just a few miles from Kennedy Space Center. “Watching rockets and the space shuttle piqued my interest in flying at an early age,” he recalls. “Then an astronaut moved in next door and got me into space camp.” Sarria determined that flying would be his future.

Sarria joined the Army in 2013 and served honorably as an airborne infantryman for the next seven years, earning multiple military awards along the way. He also completed his bachelor’s degree through an online program with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, graduating magna cum laude with a B.S. in Aeronautics, and minors in Management and Aviation Management.

The missing piece remained flight training.

Based on recommendations from other veterans, Sarria traveled to New Jersey from Fort Bragg, NC, to take a tour of MCCC and the Trenton-Mercer Airport. He met with Professor Judy Stillwagon, coordinator of the Aviation Flight Technology (AFT) program, and staff from Infinity Flight Group (IFG), MCCC’s partner at the airport. By the end of that visit, Sarria knew he had found a place to pursue his goals.

He was also attracted by the program’s location. “Mercer is located in some of the busiest airspace in the country,” he said. “And learning how to deal with weather in the Northeast is a huge factor in gaining flight experience. It will make me a better pilot in the long run.”

Sarria says his military experience taught him numerous lessons that have served him well as he completes his associate degree at Mercer. “My time in leadership positions reinforced my family’s values of loyalty and service. I also learned to work hard for success, be open to new things, and trust my teammates in stressful situations.”

According to Sarria his positive first impressions of MCCC have all been realized. He points especially to faculty members like Andy Quinn, who have been dedicated to his success. “He has encouraged my progress and prepared me for my FAA Knowledge Tests. Some of the best tips I have received have been on the progress flights I’ve had with him [Quinn],” Sarria said, adding that he has earned all the required FAA licenses right on schedule.

The veterans community at Mercer proved welcoming as well. Starting at the college before the onset of the pandemic, Sarria made some meaningful friendships. He recalls the college’s veterans lounge, where vets would go between classes to study, talk, and generally take a break. “Sometimes we would joke with each other based on which branch of the military we served in, but mostly we supported each other,” he said, recalling numerous instances of students helping each other with math, physics, and other challenging assignments.  

Sarria adds that John Becker, director of Veterans Services, was readily available to offer guidance and advice. “Mr. Becker would point me in the right direction to get an answer on anything Mercer, the Veterans Administration, or life in general,” he said.

Last summer, Sarria added to his resume in a distinctive way, when he served as an intern for the Port Authority of NY & NJ Aviation Department at Newark. He helped to develop a standard operating procedure that has been adopted by business managers across the Port Authority's five airports to aid in Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF) units. His impressive work led to another assignment: the consolidation and update of the Newark Airport Emergency Plan.

“Those opportunities were available to me because I was a Mercer student,” he said.

As Sarria's final year approached, he was facing the mounting costs of flight training and was extremely grateful to receive the Giving Ladder scholarship from the MCCC Foundation. “When I got the congratulations email, I experienced a huge wave of relief. The scholarship has allowed me to continue to focus on my education and maintain a high GPA. It was a much-needed boost and gave me a sense that I can and will achieve my goals.”

Now, as he nears the end of his training, Sarria spends most of his time at Trenton-Mercer Airport, where he continues to enjoy the camaraderie and support of other students on track to becoming either airline or helicopter pilots. 

“Everyone is willing to help everyone else, whether that’s preparing for FAA check rides or explaining a maneuver in a different way. We also share our pilot weather reports. It’s always good to ask how another student’s flight went, especially on windy days, so you can make the best ‘go/no go’ decision,” he said.

After graduation, Sarria aims to work as an IFG flight instructor to build required hours in the air. His long-term goal to be a captain for a major airline is well within reach.

Sarria's advice for incoming Mercer students is to get involved. “Come to college ready for new experiences. Mercer has loads of clubs and events. You never know what you might learn, or who you might meet. Networking is a huge part of our future careers,” he notes.
“And don’t be afraid to reach out to the different departments at Mercer if you are struggling. There are tutors, counselors, advisors, and so many people who want you to succeed. They will help you. All you have to do is ask.”


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Veteran Ryan Sarria's career is taking flight at MCCC. He will complete is AAS in Aviation Flight Technology this year.