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New Mexico students set sights on military academies

United States Marine Corps and Naval officers from the Class of 2014 toss their hats during the United States Naval Academy Graduation and Commissioning Ceremonies in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 23, 2014.

SANTA FE, New Mexico (MCT) — There’s no rest on Labor Day for one driven group of high school students.

Those who hope to attend elite military academies and graduate as officers are in the midst of a two-tiered application process that lasts for months and takes more work than Advanced Placement calculus.

An aspiring cadet or midshipman must obtain a political nomination and also apply directly to the academy. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., advises applicants to send a nomination request to both U.S. senators from their state, their congressman and Vice President Joe Biden. In addition to obtaining the nomination, applicants must interview before a committee and complete an extensive written application.

Skyler Rodriguez, a senior at Santa Fe High School, is devoting himself to the application process in hopes of being admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

He once thought he would like to be either an FBI agent or a member of the Secret Service. Then, Rodriguez said, he decided he could combine the best of both if he became a Navy SEAL. Rodriguez said his chances of being selected for the Navy’s ultra-competitive Sea, Air and Land fighting teams would improve if he is admitted to Annapolis.

“You can’t know how good you are unless you try to overachieve,” he said.

Getting into Annapolis or the other military academies is as hard as, if not harder than, qualifying for a top specialized combat unit such as the SEALs.

For instance, a member of the Naval Academy staff told New Mexico students last week that about 17,000 people applied to Annapolis in hopes of becoming members of Navy’s class of 2018. About 1,400 were admitted.

To be competitive in this national field, Rodriguez has stretched himself by taking a series of Advanced Placement courses, including history and calculus. He is in Junior ROTC, and his extracurricular activities include soccer and swimming.

But, he says, his 3.5 grade-point average is low for an Annapolis applicant. He hopes his commitment to a career in the Navy will help him stand out during interviews. He said he would study maritime engineering at Annapolis.

Rodriguez’s friend and classmate, Miguel Pantano, is applying both to Annapolis and West Point. His goal is to become a physician.

Pantano says West Point is his first choice. Part of his reasoning is practical. West Point, he said, has 20 slots for aspiring physicians. Annapolis has eight.

He said he feels optimistic about his chances of being accepted at both academies. Pantano has a 4.0 grade-point average and runs cross-country and track.

Through his participation in Junior ROTC, Pantano also has realized that he would fit in at a service academy.

“Personally, I like the military structure and the military lifestyle,” he said.

Finances are another reason the academies interest him.

If Pantano got into West Point or Annapolis on a track toward medical school, he could complete his entire education without paying tuition or fees. Then, he said, he would begin his career as a military physician unburdened by any student loan repayments.

Those admitted to a service academy pay no tuition, but they must serve at least five years in the military after graduating as ensigns or second lieutenants.

Women have been admitted to the service academies since the 1970s. They are a growing but distinct minority, still outnumbered by men by about 4-to-1.

But the lure of a top military academy can be strong for women, as is the case with Gabby Rivera of St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque.

She visited the University of Notre Dame, thinking it could be a good fit for her. But now, she says, life at a service academy interests her more than a prestigious private institution. Rivera is applying to both West Point and Annapolis.

“I can’t really discern one thing that’s drawn me in. I like the air of respect that comes with the military,” she said one recent night during an information session in Albuquerque on all five U.S. military academies.

In addition to Annapolis and West Point, there are the Air Force Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy and the Coast Guard Academy.

The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is the closest to New Mexico, but Rivera said it does not appeal to her.

She has a 4.02 grade-point average, higher than straight A’s because of extra weight given to the honors and Advanced Placement classes she’s completed at St. Pius. Rivera also is an all-around varsity athlete, competing in tennis, basketball and cross-country.

She says the fact that the academies are male-dominated does not concern her. The excellence and tradition of Annapolis and West Point have put them high on her list of prospective colleges. Rivera said West Point is her top choice because of an academic standing that puts it on par with some of the better private universities.

All those applying to military academies are motivated and often analytical beyond their years.

Sam Lewis, a senior at the Academy for Technology and the Classics in Santa Fe, is applying to the Naval Academy. If he gets in, he said, he sees opportunity to help create a better, smarter military.

“I don’t want to contribute to the mindless perpetuation of warfare,” he said. “It’s always easier to change the system if you know it and understand it.”

Lewis attended a summer seminar at Annapolis and said he found the academy both interesting and daunting.

“I rank it as the kind of place where I would be very challenged. It’s rigorous and somewhat harsh,” he said. “It’s a way of life to which I’m not accustomed.”

He is president of the student council at ATC. If he attended Annapolis, he said, he probably would study systems engineering and German.

Along with the Naval Academy, Lewis is interested in a range of other top universities, including MIT and Brown. Unlike many of the other applicants, he is not sure a service academy is the right place for him.

“I haven’t fully decided I want to do Navy,” he said.

Tens of thousands of other young people across the country believe they are certain that a military academy is right for them. They will spend the next several months applying and awaiting word on whether they receive one of the few, coveted slots.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

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©2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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