Carefree walks through the quad … footing large tuition and room and board costs … fraternity parties … the ‘freshman 15’ … frequent requests to parents for more money … and new-found freedom — lots of it.
These are just a few of the things graduating seniors heading to college can expect next fall — but not five members of South Lakes High School’s Class of 2006 who pledged to serve their country by attending one of three military academies.
At the end of June, Mary Magrogan and Zack Newcomb will attend the U.S. Naval Academy, which is harder to get into than Harvard.
Susan Finch and Jennifer Nolta will attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is more selective than MIT. Dan Cunningham will attend the U.S. Military Academy Prep School for a year before entering USMA, which typically turns down about 87 percent of its applicants.
Each of these students, who in lieu of becoming freshmen chose to become plebes or doolies or midshipmen, sought a higher calling, filled with screaming upperclassmen, strict physical and mental discipline and marching — lots of it.
FOR DAN CUNNINGHAM, a military education hadn’t always been part of the plan. After four years of playing varsity football at South Lakes as an offensive and defensive tackle, Cunningham wanted to continue playing in college. He applied to West Point after being recruited for football.
This spring, Cunningham, 18, received late notice that he’d been admitted into USMA’s prep school. Cunningham thinks of it as a red-shirt year to get ready for football and “to become adapted to the military lifestyle,” he said.
“I know it’s going to be hard,” said Cunningham. “I got to fight through that.”
But Cunningham, who has found several life lessons from football, has tried to focus on the positives. “I’m somewhat excited to get paid to go to school,” said Cunningham.
Cadets at USMA, which was established in 1802 by an act of Congress, are members of the U.S. Army. They receive annual salaries of more than $6,500, which pays for the cost of their uniforms, textbooks, a personal computer and living expenses. Tuition and room and board are provided. The education, according to the USMA Web site, is valued at $225,000.
When Cunningham graduates, he’ll be a commissioned second lieutenant in the Army with a requirement to serve as an officer on active duty for a minimum of five years.
Cunningham said his final decision came after thinking about entering the military during a time of war. “It definitely crossed my mind, but I’m not afraid to serve,” he said.
MARY MAGROGAN has long planned a career in the military. “I want to become a pilot. I’ve always wanted to fly F/A-18’s,” said Magrogan, a member of South Lakes’ Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for the past four years.
Despite getting into Cornell University, the University of Virginia, North Carolina State University, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, Magrogan said deciding where to go to school was not a tough decision. “Not at all,” she added. “I found out I got my nomination on New Year’s Day,” she said. “That was really exciting.”
Magrogan, 18, has been on the gymnastics team for four years, co-captain the past two years. She’ll have to give the sport up when she gets to Annapolis because the school doesn’t have it. “I might do cheerleading,” she said, an activity she started at South Lakes her senior year.
She realizes that, compared to many of her friends who are headed to traditional colleges, she’ll be giving up a lot more. After graduating in June, the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma candidate will have 13 days to celebrate before heading to the Academy’s summer program, which starts June 28. “I’m losing out on some things — unable to do what I want when I want,” said Magrogan. “But the sacrifice will be worth it. I know I’ll always have something important to do.”
The war in Iraq, Magrogan said, had little bearing on her decision. “It hasn’t changed my mind,” she said. “I want to make a difference. If that means fighting in a war, then that means fighting in a war.” Midshipmen are required to serve five years in the military after graduation. If Magrogan attends flight school, a further commitment of eight years is added.
ANYTIME ZACK NEWCOMB wants to know about what student life at the Naval Academy will be like, all he has to do is ask his 19-year-old brother, who is in his third year at the school, or his father, who graduated with the Class of 1978.
“It’s going to be tough,” said Newcomb. “Plebe summer is meant to break you down as an individual and build you up as a team.”
While that sounds easy, Newcomb knows from his brother that it’s not. “My brother threw up on his drill sergeant. He told me not to do that,” said Newcomb, jokingly.
Newcomb, who comes from a military family, lived stints in Italy and Germany. His father is a commander in the Navy who works in the Pentagon and his mom is retired Navy. His other, oldest brother is an avionic specialist in the Air Force.
Although he has been inspired by his family, his ultimate decision to apply to the Academy was based on a desire to serve his country, he said.
An IB diploma candidate, Newcomb has been a solid student at South Lakes. He’s also played varsity lacrosse since his sophomore year.
One of his greatest influences, though, was eight years in the Eagle Scouts. “It’s a preparation of outdoor skills and leadership,” he said. For his last scout project, he designed and built a small bridge at United Christian Parish in Reston.
While Newcomb says it’s hard to map out the rest of his life, he tentatively plans to use his education at the Academy as a launching pad for a career in the military. He’s particularly interested in surface warfare.
SUSAN FINCH, 17, met Chuck Yeager at a Blue Angels Air Show when she was young. “I shook his hand, but I didn’t know who he was,” said Finch. Now, with ambitions to be a fighter pilot, she knows all about him.
Next year at the Air Force Academy, Finch looks forward to enrolling in the school’s gliding program and jump program in preparation for flight school.
“Obviously, I have some time to decide what I want to do, but I think I’ll make a career out of it,” said Finch, referring to military service.
At South Lakes, Finch has spent much of her free time playing sports, particularly soccer. Recruited by the Academy, Finch will continue playing next year.
Finch, a National Honor Society student, wasn’t always sure about where she wanted to go to college. The Air Force Academy "was always in the back of my mind, but not always my first choice,” said Finch. Yet, despite being admitted to four other schools, the decision seemed easy in retrospect. “After I saw it, I knew I wanted to go there,” she said.
Her father, who retired after serving in the Air Force, kept his advice short. “He said, ‘Be prepared for people to yell at your face,’” said Finch. “I’m sure it will be a challenge. I’m sure I’ll be about to take it.”
Since making her decision to attend the Academy, the war in Iraq has also been on her mind, she said. “We’ll see how it plays out and take it from there,” she said.
Due to report at Colorado Springs, Colo. on June 29, Finch plans to spend her two weeks after South Lakes graduation relaxing and going to the pool. “And of course working on my pushups,” she said.
JENNIFER NOLTA applied to one school: the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I started some other applications,” she said, including ones to Yale and Virginia Tech, “but I never finished them.”
The 18-year-old knew she wanted to attend the Academy since the eighth grade. “I saw a special on the B-2 bomber. I said, ‘One day, I’m going to fly that plane,” said Nolta.
With her admittance into the 14th most selective school in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report, Nolta is one step closer to that goal.
Nolta hopes to have a long career in the military as a pilot. But she hasn’t made her decision lightly given she’ll enter the service during a time of war. “I think it’s scary to think about actually going to war,” said Nolta. “You don’t think about going into combat — going in to kill or be killed — but obviously someone needs to do it. I believe in protecting the freedoms that we fought for,” she said.
The daughter of parents in the Air Force, Nolta knows what to expect this summer. In addition, her brother, Thomas, will begin his third year at the Academy this fall. “He tells me the horror stories of that first summer and then asks, ‘Do you still want to come,’” said Nolta, who always answers yes.
“You have to realize it gets better. You just have to stick it out,” said Nolta.
The hardest part, she said, may be leaving early while many of her friends have the whole summer to enjoy. “You have to say goodbye sometime,” she said. “But, hopefully, it’s not goodbye forever.”
A member of the National Honor Society, Nolta will graduate this June as an IB diploma candidate. She played soccer her whole life and for the past four years at South Lakes. She plans to try out for the team at the Academy.