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Serving his country and Carolina

When senior Tyler Vaughan graduates this December, he will do so as a newly commissioned Marine second lieutenant and a new dad.

Tyler Vaughan
(Donn Young/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Senior Tyler Vaughan already had a decade of military experience when he began his undergraduate career at Carolina in June 2019.

Vaughan, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, native and gunnery sergeant, was stationed in Norway on his fifth deployment with the Marines in 2018 as he awaited two admissions decision emails. One would come from Carolina. The other would arrive from the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, which would allow him to remain on active duty while pursuing his degree full-time.

“I was hitting the refresh button for a few days while I waited for the responses,” said Vaughan with a laugh, remembering the added challenge of being six hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time while in Scandinavia.

Finally, both acceptances arrived in his inbox. “I can’t express how excited I was,” he said.

When he arrived at Carolina, Vaughan already knew he would major in peace, war and defense in the College of Arts and Sciences. Through his training with the Marines, he had become an expert in analyzing terrorist organization propaganda, and the curriculum closely aligned with his expertise.

As a student through MECEP, he would also enroll in the Naval ROTC program, which became one of the highlights of his Carolina experience. Captain Derek A. McNamara, Marine officer instructor, called him an “inspiration” to his fellow Carolina midshipmen and newly commissioned second lieutenants.

“He routinely goes above and beyond what is expected to teach, coach and mentor subordinates, peers and those above his own paygrade by serving as a sounding board for advice and a lifeline for potential solutions,” McNamara said.

Vaughan says that he has learned as much from his peers as he’s taught. “Just as much as I hope to be their mentor, I certainly take a lot home from them as well.”

Vaughan’s PWAD classes were often cross-listed with communication courses, which led him to declaring his second major and to meeting one of his Carolina mentors, Cori Dauber, a professor in the department of communication.

Dauber is an expert in online visual propaganda strategies of terrorist groups and helped Vaughan find his current internship with an organization that develops software to analyze propaganda.

Even beyond his internship, busy academic schedule and military commitments, Vaughan faced transitions and challenges during his time at Carolina. He navigated remote learning through the pandemic in 2020. The same year, he lost his mother to cancer.

“That was an especially difficult time,” Vaughan said. With the support of his professors, he traveled back and forth to see family in Pittsburgh while continuing classes. During that time, he and his closest friends became even closer, a silver lining through it all, he said.

This year has brought another transition: He and his wife, Kristin Vaughan, welcomed their son, Charlie, this August, just two weeks into his final semester.

“I was about to give a speech in my argumentation and debate class,” Vaughan said. “And my wife called me and said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s happening.’ That was literally as I was stepping up to the podium.”

Many students might have called it quits in the stress of that moment. But not Vaughan.

“I remember thinking, ‘It’s only a two- or three-minute speech.’” He asked his professor, “Can I go first?”

Spending more time with Charlie is one of the reasons Vaughan decided to graduate a semester early. His favorite Carolina memory is closely tied to family, too. He proposed to Kristin in front of Wilson Library with the help of his dog, Boudreaux.

“We tied the ring on a bow tie around Boudreaux’s neck,” Vaughan remembered, smiling. “My 100-pound Doberman came sprinting across the quad, ran right up to us and gave us the ring.”

As he enters the final weeks at Carolina, Vaughan is looking forward to spending time with Kristin and Charlie and to his next steps with the Marines.

After graduation, he will be commissioned as a Marine second lieutenant. He will report to Quantico, Virginia, where he will attend The Basic School to further his military and leadership skills. There, he will also vie for his preferred job in the Marines, the role of influence officer, a position that aligns with the skillset Vaughan has been building for over a decade.

Looking back on his time as a student, Vaughan is grateful for the “fantastic” support his professors gave him during his best and most difficult times, the community he found through Naval ROTC and the opportunities that came from networking through his courses.

His parting advice for fellow Tar Heels is to make the most of every minute at Carolina.

“Four years will feel like it goes by rather quickly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have time to take advantage of things like internships, getting to know people in different clubs and networking with students and professors. To me, that will generate just as much success as finding the right class and getting the right grades.”

Learn more about the College of Arts and Sciences