Alum shares heartwarming story about her UNF professor in viral TikTok

Nathan Turoff, Features Editor

In 2015, one University of North Florida (UNF) sophomore signed up for the Intro to Leadership course, being freshly taught by UNF Honors Professor — retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General and self-described dinosaur — Richard Tryon. Desiring a music career, she initially took the course for an easy A. She remembers being a mostly insincere student at first.

That’s what now UNF Alum, independent country singer and surfer Emily Zeck expressed on TikTok after she learned about a trend of self-reflection in the form of a fictional conversation with one’s younger self. Zeck doesn’t usually like to get “super sappy” on social media, but one strong memory stood out to her from her past: Her sophomore year Honors class, Introduction to Leadership, newly taught by Tryon.

“It was almost therapeutic in a way,” Zeck said of her reflection.

In the now-viral video posted on TikTok, Zeck explained how her college career had been very tumultuous up to that point. She had isolated herself from her family, lost many friends, and was in the middle of an incredibly toxic and abusive relationship she had previously joked about other people being in.

She was very much “fighting to survive at point,” and her academic performance was suffering. While she would still show up for class, it was only physically, not emotionally or mentally. According to her TikTok, she had even contemplated ending her life.

“Being a good student is more than just regurgitating information,” said Zeck before admitting that is exactly what she did for the first half of the semester in the class

As her story continues, she eventually came to respect General Tryon after he showed a willingness to help her prepare for her first music label interview in Los Angeles. This tiny preparatory interview outside of class would mean a lot to Zeck. Although not quite realizing it until years later, this small gesture was a willingness, or “showing up,” that she wasn’t even willing to give herself at the time. 

This meeting felt like someone “shot an energy drink” into her work ethic. Zeck ended up turning her academic performance around afterward, but couldn’t quite recall if she actually earned an A in the class by the end. After the TikTok went viral, General Tryon went back into his records to confirm that she did, in fact, earn an A in the class. He didn’t think it could be easy to get an A if it was his first time teaching it.

Explaining on TikTok, she became incredibly grateful for that experience, and that class remains one of her strongest memories of UNF as a whole. While the meeting with the record label didn’t pan out, describing it as “laughably bad,” Zeck was hardly upset. Instead, she saw it as a learning experience. She communicated neither positive nor negative feelings to Tryon when he later asked how it went. She spoke very fondly of it and says she doesn’t regret it at all.

Zeck eventually went to make her own label, and she loves the independence and control it allows her over her career. She especially loves expanding her social media presence through Instagram and the aforementioned Tiktok.

After graduating, Zeck did not speak with Tryon for some time, slightly embarrassed for not keeping in touch, and nervous that he may not even remember her, a fact she brought up in her TikTok. 

Then the TikTok video exploded, with millions of views at the time of writing. 

Emily smiles next to General Tryon
Emily Zeck (left) poses for a photo with professor Richard Tryon (right). (Nathan Turoff)

According to Zeck, in addition to responses from her fans, she even received responses from other UNF students who had Tryon as a professor, and even some of Tryon’s fellow servicemen. Tryon himself got lots of comments from his coworkers and family, and it even got the attention of his department chair. He was touched by how much it meant to her.

They eventually both agreed to a dual interview with Spinnaker, which was to be their first in-person interaction in over five years. They were both very happy to see each other again. Despite having to make an over two-hour drive to her Alma Mater right after Hurricane Ian, it was more than worth it for Zeck to see her old professor again.

“I would drive more than two and half hours to reconnect,” she remarked.

Tryon was happy to see how her career has blossomed, awestruck by her talent and the strength of her character. He also explained how his family had made playlists of her songs for him after the TikTok went viral, which made her laugh.

Zeck was very pleased that she was wrong when she said he probably didn’t remember her. She was very happy to be able to personally thank Tryon for what he had done for her. She was also happy to see he hadn’t really changed at all.

Zeck explained to Tryon how she was “doing exactly what [she] wanted to do,” which made him very happy and proud. She also mentioned how many of her TikTok followers had even encouraged General Tryon himself to get one. Tryon explained how his grandchildren had expressed the same desire, but one that he respectfully declined due to his security concerns with TikTok’s connection to the Chinese government.

Zeck recalled one of Tryon’s end-of-class sayings, which she repeats to others as one of her favorite words of wisdom, and was glad to hear he himself still uses it:

“The best thing to do is to live your life like you’re living out your eulogy, not your resume.”


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