Ask Jeff Ryan, 17, about alligators, and he could tell you a lot. One showed up for his younger brother’s baptism. The alligator wasn’t really invited, but Jeff and his family live on a lake shore near the Florida Everglades, and the alligator just happened to live in the same lake.
Actually, Jeff could tell you about a lot of things. Some people have been blessed with the gift of singing, or putting mechanical things together, or playing tennis, or knowing when a friend needs help. Jeff has been blessed with a gift for learning. The more you get to know Jeff, the more you realize he’s got an insatiable curiosity about the things around him—and he works hard to learn as much as he can.
When Jeff was four years old, someone asked him to say the alphabet. “Do you want it backwards or forwards?” responded the pint-sized scholar. He had just tested out in vocabulary skills at a 12th-grade level.
It isn’t always easy being so smart. As a child, he was turned down by three public schools that didn’t have facilities to deal with gifted children. As it ended up, Jeff was taught at home until the third grade.
He started high school at age 12, graduated at 14, then started college. Jeff has really enjoyed going to college and making friends there. Even though he’s younger than the other college students, Jeff is tall for his age and fits right in. He has earned a bachelor’s degree at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His goal is to earn a master’s degree by age 18, then go on a mission when he’s 19.
“I’ve always wanted to go on a mission,” says Jeff. “It would be a nice thing to serve the Lord and other people.”
Although Jeff is gifted academically, he doesn’t keep his nose in books all day. He has friends and lots of hobbies, and he enjoys doing things with his family.
Some families go on picnics together. Jeff’s family goes snake hunting together. Looking out in the Everglades not far from Jeff’s house, with trees scattered here and there in the swampy, spongy land, you figure snakes would like this country. They do.
“I learned about snakes by catching them, watching them, reading books about them, and keeping them as pets for a while,” says Jeff. “I’ve stayed away from the poisonous snakes, though.”
The Ryan family has also gone hunting for panthers—well, panther tracks, actually, which they fill with plaster of paris to make casts. They’ve gone hunting for fossilized seashells too. And Jeff loves to go scuba diving in the warm Florida waters.
“If we lived in the western United States we’d probably be mountain climbers or hikers, but they don’t do that here. So we enjoy what we have around us,” says Jeff’s mother.
Scouting provides a lot of opportunities for Jeff to explore, too. “Our Scoutmaster is really dedicated to helping us learn,” says Jeff. “I like the outdoors and being with the guys, going out and testing our skills and abilities against each other. The troop is second nature now, because I’ve been with them so long and enjoy it so much.”
Jeff is junior assistant Scoutmaster of his troop and recently earned his Eagle Award. For his Eagle project, he and a young woman from his stake planned a three-day stake youth conference.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends at youth conferences,” he says. “Those conferences have probably been the biggest testimony builders in my life. It helps to interact with kids who believe the same things you do and feel the same way, and who you can share good, clean fun with.”
In the evenings, Jeff works at the photography counter of a local drugstore. Photography is his latest hobby, which makes his job fun. He’s saving money for a mission.
“I just realized how much it’s actually going to cost to go on a mission,” says Jeff. “With saving for school books and tuition, it’s not going to be easy.” He’s starting a business of his own so he can earn money. He’ll be matching up students with financial aid that’s available.
The Church is important to Jeff. He was the only Church member in his high school, and the only seminary student in his ward. He graduated from seminary this year. The first year of high school he attended early-morning seminary with two other youth from the stake. “It was a nice way to wake up,” says Jeff. The next year his mom became his home-study teacher. “We’d get into discussions about the scriptures and learn along with each other.
“Ever since I can remember we’ve been studying the scriptures as a family together in the mornings. The scriptures have given me a lot of guidance in my life and helped me with my problems,” says Jeff.
Despite all his accomplishments, Jeff doesn’t seem overly impressed with himself. His mom says that he realized that his ability to learn wasn’t something he could take credit for; it was a gift from Heavenly Father.
“The Church has shown me that you can stay above the world and still enjoy yourself,” says Jeff. “I’ve tried to turn to the Lord and the scriptures to feel good influences in my life. I’m trying to accomplish as much as I can, based on the abilities I’ve been given.”