Attending one of the nation’s military academies isn’t just an educational experience, it’s transformational, and offers a great opportunity for those up to the challenge, representatives of the service institutions told V.I. audiences.
More than 200 students and their parents gathered Thursday at the Great Hall on UVI’s St. Croix campus for the first Military Academy Fair, organized by Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen. A similarly packed house on St. Thomas heard the presentation Wednesday.
Christensen said one of the best parts of her job is nominating qualified Virgin Islanders – "our best and brightest” – to the academies. She organized this week’s events to give as many students as possible an overview of the institutions and the process.
Four of the nation’s five military academies were represented – The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The U.S. Air Force Academy was not able to send a representative, Christensen said.
Many of the young people in the audiences were already leaning towards applying to the academies, but not all. And for those who hadn’t been inclined towards the service schools before, Thursday’s presentation was a mind-changer.
"I wasn’t really thinking about it, but I am now," said Shelby Franklin, a senior at St. Croix Educational Complex. When asked what had brought her to be standing at the Coast Guard Academy table seeking more information, she replied, "All the benefits."
Those benefits include the chance to attend schools routinely counted among the best in the country, to challenge yourself against the best from all across America, and to do so without having to pay tuition. And academy graduates don’t have to run out looking for jobs in a tough economy. They’ll jump out into a five-year commitment as an officer in one of the branches of the service.
Latisha Rawlins, a junior at St. Croix Central High School, was already planning to apply to West Point. She was drawn by the chance to meet and work with people from all over the United States and travel.
Dylan Marohn and Sam Watterson are both seniors at Country Day School, and they love being on the water. So for them the Merchant Marine Academy is a natural. Both young men said they have already almost finished the application process, but came by to hear more of the spiel.
Capt. Jerry Varnado, the admissions officer at West Point, told the audience that the Army’s academy is not easy, and it’s not for everyone. But if you can measure up, it will make you a leader of character.
"When we read about you in the history book one day, we’ll read how you were able to choose the hard right instead of the easy wrong," he said.
Students at West Point receive a four-year benefit package equivalent to a $320,000 scholarship, including all tuition and expenses, medical and dental coverage, and a stipend.
When students graduate, and 81 percent of them do, they are commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army.
"The academy is supposed to be hard," he said. "It will find what you’re not good at and make you better it at. It’s not an obstacle, it’s an opportunity."
It’s not for everybody, he said, but for those who want it, it’s something they have to strive for.
Similarly, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., offers a free four-year education and a stipend to the students willing to accept the challenge, said Donna Webber, who is both the director of nominations and appointments at the academy and the mother of a 2007 graduate. Her son is now serving the U.S. on a nuclear submarine. Graduates of the Naval Academy graduate as ensigns in the Navy or lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Coast Guard Academy was represented by one of its most recent graduates, Ensign Jevon James, who graduated in May. James is a native of St. Thomas, and Thursday he sprinkled his remarks with good-natured jabs about the differences between his home island and St. Croix.
Lt. Tina Schoggers described America’s least-known military academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which trains its students for careers aboard the cargo ships, tankers and other ocean-going vessels that mean so much to the country’s economy.
The major difference between the Merchant Marine Academy and the other four is that its students complete a four-year college career in three years, and then spend a year at sea. Upon graduation its students become commissioned officers in either the Army, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard, or can serve in the Reserves while pursuing careers in the merchant marine.
While the application and nomination process begins in a student’s junior year, all four representatives cautioned the students not to wait until then to get started.
"You can start in the seventh-grade, the sixth-grade," Weber said. "That’s the time to start preparing yourself for what you want to be."
Vardano said the academy is looking for the best all-around candidates, not just the smartest.
"If you did nothing in high school but study and study and got perfect grades but didn’t do anything else, great, go to Harvard," he said. "Academics alone will not get you into the academy."
They al urged the students to engage in clubs, sports, student government and other activities that promote leadership. Starting in their junior year, students should take the SAT or ACT as often as possible, three or four times, because the academies will combine the scores to get the best total. They should be taking AP courses if they’re available.
Students should complete the admissions package, available online at the schools’ websites, as early as possible. Depending on the school, different physical tests are required.
Once a student has been accepted as an applicant, they have to apply to their Congressional representative for a nomination. The representative can nominate as many as 10 candidates for each school. So even if your application is successful, you are still competing with the best of the best for one of the positions in each academy.
Further information on the academies and their application processes are available on the school’s websites, listed below.