Army veteran overcomes traumatic youth to chase his dreams at Penn State

The path to Penn State for second-year architecture student and adult learner Tyler Colon was never smooth and sometimes dark, but thanks to the Army, a K-9 companion and a determination to forge a better life for himself and his family, his future is filled with possibilities. Dec. 23, 2011, is a day burned into Colon's memory. He was 13 years old at the time and instead of decorating a Christmas tree and planning for the holiday, he and his three younger siblings found themselves homeless. The details of that traumatic day, and the years of struggle that followed, flowed from Colon as he sat at a drafting table in an architecture studio in the College of Arts and Architecture's Stuckeman Family Building. In Penn State, he found a home. Now 25, he lives a few miles from campus in Houserville with his wife, Sarah, and his sister, Kaylee, who the couple is in the process of adopting. When the paperwork officially goes through, it will be a joyous union, Colon said, but it will also be another instance of picking up the pieces. “My mother and father were drug dealers in York, and with that came addiction,” Colon said. “As my mom's mental state deteriorated, she became physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. It was a hard time.” On that December day in 2011, Colon's mom, as the deed holder of the house they were living in, kicked the family out after filing a PFA (Protection from Abuse) against Colon's father. He and the four kids were forced to find another place to live. Colon's father, also struggling with addiction, rented an apartment and tried to hold it together but ultimately could not. Colon said he and his siblings each eventually left home early but managed to stay in school and remain connected. Against all odds, he performed well in high school and was drawn to design and architecture, not only as a career, but as a way to address homelessness. “I've been out there on the streets, and I've slept on park benches,” Colon said. “I just kept thinking, 'I don't want anyone else to go through this and there has to be something we can do about this.'” Without the financial means to attend college and chase those dreams, he saw the Army as a logical step. To him, it was a path that could offer stability, and he enlisted in 2015. While he was considering his next steps, he was working at a gift shop in the York Galleria mall. A day he described as sour quickly turned sweet when from across the mall he saw Sarah. “I knew I had to talk to her. I tried the old-fashioned way and just walked up, introduced myself and asked her out to dinner,” Colon said. “When she said, 'I'll think about it,' I didn't think I'd see her again.” Later in his shift, Sarah returned with a phone number written on a napkin. “I called her that night, and we talked for 12 straight hours,” Colon said. While the relationship was strengthening, Colon was approaching basic training. The two moved into their first apartment together in August of 2016 just prior to him leaving for Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Prior to basic training, soldiers are asked to consider what occupation they would like to pursue in the Army. Colon made a list of 10 options and when meeting with Army personnel, he was informed that all the jobs he was interested in were taken, except the last one on his list—K-9 handler. A few months later, he met Dzamar (pronounced Zamar), a Belgian Malinois who failed out of active duty. He spent the next 12 weeks in K-9 school with the goal of passing the training test and earning a deployment. The main hurdle was a tall one—Colon never actually trained a dog. “At first, he just destroyed me every single day,” Colon said. “I would walk in, grab his leash to get to work and he would tear up my arm.” Over time, however, the two bonded, and Colon trained Dzamar to be a highly skilled explosives detection K-9 with a more than 95 percent detection rate. The duo passed the test in 2018 and were deployed to the U.S. Army's South Base in Egypt as part of the Army's larger peacekeeping mission. Colon and Dzamar returned from the deployment in August of 2019 and soon after, Dzamar retired from service. He went on to live with Colon's mother-in-law until he died in 2022. After Dzamar's retirement, Colon was introduced to Dollar, a German Shepherd who was already in his unit. The two began working together and because of the strength of their bond and Dollar's perfect detection rate, they were assigned to the one of the highest profile jobs in the U.S. military—security detail for then-President Donald Trump. Dollar would serve as an explosives detection K-9 for the President's detail until 2020, when the duo was assigned to then-candidate Joe Biden's campaign. Colon and Dollar transitioned into Biden's Presidential detail in January of 2021, where the two would remain until Colon completed his service in early 2022 while Dollar remained with the unit. After honorably serving and completing his service as a Sergeant E-5, Colon's thoughts shifted back to those dreams of being a designer and architect. While looking at schools, he held an internship at an architecture firm to immerse himself in the work and to build a resume. “The POTUS [President of the United States] details took me to all 50 states, but nowhere ever felt like Pennsylvania. It's always been the place where I feel at home,” Colon said. “Of course, if your home is Pennsylvania, you want to go to Penn State.” Adding to his interest in Penn State was the fact that Sarah graduated from the University while he was on deployment. She attended Penn State World Campus, and he said her experience as an adult learner at the University was transformative. “That coupled with how high-ranking the [architecture] program is and the quality of the faculty and alumni drove my decision to apply,” Colon said. A few months passed without hearing from Penn State and while on a family vacation to celebrate the end of his service with the Army, he got what he called a life-changing email. “We were in Key West on our second day of vacation and the acceptance letter came through,” Colon said. “I couldn't believe it and I thought, 'this is the best thing ever,'” He, Sarah (who works remotely for the Hershey Company) and Colon's sister moved to State College and he began his pursuit of an architecture degree in the fall of 2022. Colon's early success in the program has allowed him to return to that dream he had in high school. He hopes to graduate on time and although he knows it will take time and experience, he wants to design spaces to address homelessness. “Penn State is an amazing place. The culture and the influence of the people around me has inspired me to think bigger and imagine how we can make society a better place,” Colon said. “Being a Penn Stater comes with this sense of stewardship, and I feel compelled to go out into the world and make a difference.” Almost 12 years after his family was forced out of their home, Colon's success has served as an example for his younger siblings. His brother, Hunter, serves in the Army as a nurse and is pursuing his medical degree in hopes of becoming a pediatric doctor. His youngest brother, Logan, just completed basic training for infantry school and aims to become a member of the special operations in the Army. Kaylee is excelling at State College Area High School while working an almost-full-time job. “We had a rough childhood there's no sugar-coating it and I quickly found myself becoming a role model to them,” Colon said. “Everything I did was for them. Family is everything to me.”

Schools and Departments: Department of Architecture