GRAD SPEAK: Learning For a Lifetime with Phoy St. John

  • Drew Poplin

When we sat down to chat with Phoy St. John, a recent graduate of Sonoran Desert Institute (SDI), his dedication, passion, and hunger for knowledge were evident. Phoy, a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is also something of a trailblazer, as he is one of the few students who’ve attended SDI to have graduated from both the School of Firearms Technology and the School of Unmanned Technology. Then again, that spirit of adventure and search for knowledge has led him in many directions.

From Books to the Beat

Before finding his way to SDI, Phoy had his sights set on engineering. As Phoy explains, “I went to the University of New Mexico for mechanical engineering and traveled around the U.S. trying to find a graduate program that would fit. I ended up at CU Boulder doing biomedical engineering because my background was in computational fluid dynamics or CFD.”

Ultimately, he would decide to pivot in a different direction. Joining the Navy as a Junior Officer, he was able to use the skills he acquired in surface warfare to transition into his work as a police officer. Since making that transition, he has remained with the department for 13 years.

Throughout the years, Phoy developed a passion for shooting firearms. However, he was reaching the point where he wanted to possess a deeper understanding of how his firearms worked. He was tired of relying on others to fix them, so he decided he would learn how. And he knew exactly where he would find the information he needed.

Learning Lots at SDI

Anyone who has ever had to go through the enrollment process for college knows that it can be very stressful. And while Phoy held initial concerns regarding the use of his VA benefits, his concerns were soon eased. According to Phoy, “It was probably the easiest process I have ever been through for a school. The one thing that I was pretty worried about was getting the VA benefits. And that was seamless. I applied, I sent in my DD 214 and answered a couple of questions over the phone and that was it. It was the simplest, easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

Phoy finished the Certificate in Firearms Technology—Gunsmithing program in the fall of 2022, and naturally, you’d think that might be the end of his SDI journey…but that wasn’t quite the case for him. See, Phoy had another hobby that SDI happened to accommodate. Drones.

From Firearms to Flight

Phoy had previously spent time racing drones but, like his hobby of firearms, he wanted to find out more. As Phoy puts it, “I have been flying drones for racing, and so I wanted to change that hobby and open up more doors for myself to work more on the commercial side.”

Transitioning between the two programs back-to-back proved to have some challenges. As Phoy explains, “For the gunsmithing, obviously, there’s going to be a lot more hands-on work…And so, going from a more hands-on, less academic environment in the gunsmithing to a more academic, less hands-on (environment) for the unmanned aerial systems, there was a little bit of a change in how things were being written and the amount of time spent on the written part for the unmanned aerial systems, whereas there was more of a time effort for the hands-on projects for gunsmithing.”

It was a challenge that Phoy was up for as he was able to learn a lot through his experience in the two programs. According to him, his favorite parts of SDI were the AR-10 capstone project and the risk-free flight simulations.

As he explains, “So, what you’re doing is you’re learning how to fly, learning the controls and, in a virtual environment, you can crash as many times as you want. And there’s no monetary risk. Obviously, when you run into something or crash in the real world, you’re gonna pay for it. Whether it’s a couple of bucks for a prop or you have to send it back to the manufacturer to fix other things. And so using the virtual environment to learn how to fly really reduces a lot of the risk of learning in the real world.”

From Student to Teacher

For as much as Phoy enjoys learning, it is interesting to note that this passion has transformed into a desire to teach others. According to Phoy, “The dream is to pass not only my love of shooting but also working with guns. That way, people can know and be more prepared for what they want and to note deficiencies and how to fix them.”

The dream doesn’t end there, nor does his desire to educate. Utilizing his skills from SDI, Phoy not only flies drones for his police department but also educates others in preparation for the FAA Part 107 exam.

Of course, for Phoy, the learning never stops. Being on a 20-year retirement plan with the police department, he has his eyes on returning to the classroom. This time, he’ll be trading a badge for a lab coat as he pursues a career in the medical field. Knowing how driven Phoy is, we might be referring to him as “Dr. Phoy” within a decade.

When asked to summarize his experience at SDI, the future doctor had this to say, “You had to work hard and put out a good product. But if you do that, the preparation that you get from SDI does translate into the real world and you’ll be set up for success.“

Learn More About What SDI Offers

Thanks to Sonoran Desert Institute, Phoy was able to continue his educational journey to learn about both firearms and drones. And so can you! To find out more about our program offerings, click here.

To read what other graduates of ours have to say about their SDI experience, you can view our full catalog of grad articles here.


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