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Ones to Watch

Ryan Steinly

A portrait of Ryan Steinly
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Global
  • Undergraduate students
  • David C. Frederick Honors College
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

A Frederick Honors College student fluent in language and justice.

Transformative experiences can happen in the most unexpected places. Like a Kmart store in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. That’s where Ryan Steinly donned a red polo shirt for his first job, working the checkout register, stocking shelves and — to his surprise — periodically translating for Spanish-speaking customers. Then a high school sophomore, he’d enjoyed studying Spanish at school. But when he saw relief spill over someone’s face as he spoke in their native tongue to read a label, tell them where to find an item or help communicate with a manager, he felt the thrill of unlocking a language barrier to help someone, even in a small way.

“It was so rewarding to help people like that,” he said. “I wanted to keep doing it.”

So, upon his arrival at Pitt, Steinly plunged into work and research projects that centered the voices and experiences of immigrants and non-native English speakers. He interviewed Spanish-speaking parents for an education nonprofit, asking how to make their kids’ standardized test score reports more understandable. He won a Dick Thornburgh Fellowship through the David C. Frederick Honors College to investigate why, during an influx of English as a second language (ESL) speakers to Pennsylvania between 2005 and 2015, the K-12 educational achievement gap for this population only worsened. He found that the teacher preparation curriculum for Pennsylvania did not include nearly as much material for assisting English learners as in other states; teachers simply weren’t prepared well enough. Steinly presented his findings at research symposiums and created a TED Talk-style video on YouTube to increase awareness about the issue.

Later, he added a second major to his Spanish studies. Classics allowed him to learn Greek and Latin as gateways to the history, art and politics of ancient Greece and Rome. Opting for the Bachelor of Philosophy degree, which requires a thesis project, he wrote about how Roman colonization from the perspective of the conquerors offers only a partial truth of history. He foregrounded his favorite contemporary Chicano scholar, Gloria Anzaldúa, to give a perspective of someone under colonial rule whose culture and language were silenced. “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self,” she writes in “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”

But Steinly’s map of world cultures and languages was not complete yet — he also added a minor in German. He watches and listens to German TV shows and podcasts to learn colloquial, everyday use of the language, so he can converse easily when he travels to Germany one day. He put his German into practice during his senior year while doing another of his favorite activities: singing in the Heinz Chapel Choir.

The a capella group performs in various languages — including Latin and German — in the historic Heinz Memorial Chapel and around the country (with an international tour every three years). Steinly managed setup and teardown for shows, planned processions and exits, and even offered extra background and translation for the German song in their final performance of the year: “Selig sind die Toten.”

“Ryan is exceptionally generous with his time and talent,” said Susan Rice, director of the choir.

Steinly’s zest for studying culture and language, married to a desire to help people, also prompted him to take a position as an ambassador for the Kenneth S. Deitrich School of Arts and Sciences. In this role, he was a point of contact for prospective students from all over the world, giving campus tours, answering questions and directing them to specific mentors.

Next up is Harvard Law School. Steinly was accepted into the junior deferral program, where he’ll have two years off to gain experience before diving into coursework in Boston. Right now, he’s getting that experience at his alma mater. Steinly recently joined Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid as an admissions counselor. He’s already used his language skills on a trip to Puerto Rico, where he met with Spanish-speaking students and their families. It’s one more step toward his goal of working for justice related to language and policy.


— Liberty Ferda, photography by Aimee Obidzinski