Not Your Average Undergrad

For a growing number of young Latinas, the disciplined and challenging environment of a U.S. military academy offers an attractive way to hone their leadership skills, get a fantastic, tuition-free education, and make the most of their individual talents. Despite the fact that they are in the racial and gender minorities at all of the academies, outward differences are absorbed in the tightly-knit communities that they join. Just ask four Latinas in their final year at U.S. military academies: Maia Molina-Schaefer, at the Naval Academy; Cindy Nieves, at the Air Force Academy; Jessica Tomazic, at the Army Academy at West Point; and Lily Zepeda, at the Coast Guard Academy.

These four remarkable young women, despite differences in background and academy-of-choice, surely have more in common with each other than they do with students at other colleges and universities. They face physical challenges and grueling academic schedules that would make the average college student shudder, and they do it because they are committed to serving their country.

Naturally, the story of any career at a U.S. military academy begins with the student’s decision to apply and the difficult process of being accepted. With free tuition at all of the academies, the requirements for grade averages and SAT scores are steep, and the application process is highly rigorous.

It was Zepeda’s guidance counselor who suggested she consider the Coast Guard Academy. Although she had never viewed the riverside Connecticut school as an option — she grew up in the Arizona desert, after all — she was enthusiastic once she learned about the benefits of a military education.
 

Maia Molina-Schaefer, 22, is a midshipman at the Naval Academy. With an Ecuadorian father and an Irish and German mother, the midshipman laughingly labels herself a “mutt.” The passionate musician and political science major grew up in Northern Virginia and Buffalo, and hopes to become a military attaché. 

A member of the Navy Boxing team for two years, last year Maia Molina-Schaefer was the first woman in Naval Academy history to compete in and win the annual Brigade Boxing Championship.

Nieves was also encouraged to apply by a mentor — her mother. Although she had been planning on attending a school in Pennsylvania, when she took her mom’s advice and checked out the Air Force Academy, she was hooked. It was too late in the year to complete the exhaustive application requirements, so Nieves spent a year at the academy’s prep school taking classes, working on her grades and improving her SAT scores in order to enter the academy in the following year. Since the prep school was right on the base, she also got an early introduction to campus life.

For Molina-Schaefer, involvement in sports was the key ingredient to applying to the Naval Academy. A rower in high school, she was recruited as a coxswain for the Navy and attended the academy’s rowing camp one summer. Impressed by the disciplined midshipmen she saw there, she applied. Although she didn’t get in the first time — an experience that left her “devastated” — she decided to go to Northwestern Prep School in California, raising her SAT scores enough to be accepted to the academy the following year.

Tomazic’s path to West Point began early in high school, when she joined the JROTC and one of her instructors suggested she consider the Army’s military academy. By her sophomore year, after reading the school’s literature and reviewing the number of career paths available to graduates, she had her heart set on attending. Tomazic’s father, a former Marine himself, was initially daunted by the distance of West Point from her home, but he came around once his daughter was accepted. “He’s someone that feels like everybody should have at least two years of service to their nation,” she says.

Zepeda’s mother had similar separation anxiety. “My mom had always told me that she knew I was going to be the one to move away,” Zepeda says. But when she found out just how far away her daughter was planning on going, “she wasn’t very excited.” After a call home from Zepeda’s guidance counselor, however, her parents were convinced. Since then, they have been an important source of support during her academic career. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without them — they provide emotional support, advice, help when stressed.”

By contrast, Nieves’ family was enthusiastic from the beginning. “My mom wouldn’t ever let me do ‘girly’ things,” she laughs. “[She was a] typical Latin mother, always encouraging me to be independent.” And when she surprised her father with the news that she had been accepted, “He loved it — he’s probably the proudest father I know. He can’t wait to salute me.”

Molina-Schaefer’s family, too, was overjoyed for their daughter. “My mother was behind me 100 percent,” she recalls. “She always tells me that she wishes she could have done what I’ve done.”

When they arrived at school, all four young women found out just how different the military academies are from other colleges. For cadets and midshipmen, a typical day begins at 5:30 or 6:00 with morning inspection or group formation, and sometimes leftover homework or early-morning sports practices. Afterwards is breakfast, and generally classes start immediately afterwards and go until 4:00 in the afternoon. Then come several hours of practice for students on sports teams. After practice is over, cadets and midshipmen have some time to eat dinner and study. But there are no all-nighters — the military academies send students to their rooms by 10:30 or 11:00, and most require that students’ lights be out by midnight.

Dorm life is also more regulated at the academies. At the Coast Guard Academy, Zepeda says, “we can’t have stuff on our walls — all of our rooms have to be the same.” And at West Point, Tomazic explains that “you have to have your room in a certain order. Your bed has to be made a certain way, shoes lined up in a certain way, clothes folded in a certain way. All cadets are trained during their first summer in the academy on how to maintain their rooms. If rooms don’t pass inspections, they risk receiving “hours” — what Tomazic jokingly terms “detention on steroids.”

Furthermore, none of the academies allow parties or drinking in the dormitories. And there is definitely no mixed-sex interaction behind closed doors. At the Air Force, Nieves explains, the latest manifestation of that rule is that “you can’t be on the same horizontal surface as a member of the opposite sex.” And at the Naval Academy, the letter of the law is different, but the spirit is the same: the door must be maintained at 90 degrees when male and female midshipmen are in the room together.

Cindy Nieves, a 22-year old cadet at the Air Force Academy, was born in Puerto Rico. The self-described “Air Force and Navy brat” is majoring in foreign area studies with a specialization in Latin America.


 

Jessica Tomazic, whose Puerto Rican grandfather gave her “a keen appreciation for cultural differences,” is a philosophy major at West Point. An Ohio native, the 21-year-old hopes to go on to medical school.


 

Lily Zepeda, 21, is a first-generation Mexican-American from Yuma, Arizona. A former migrant student who spent her earliest childhood summers on the lettuce fields, she is majoring in computer science and management with a business focus.

Jessica Tomazic (front, third from right) is a member of West Point’s cycling team and has participated on the crew and rugby teams and in the Spanish and Russian clubs. Photo courtesy of www.usma.edu.

Despite the restrictions, most students still find time for fun. At both the Coast Guard and the Naval Academy, all of the cadets and midshipmen live in the same dormitory building (at the Naval Academy’s Bancroft dormitory, that’s close to 4,000 people). As a result, Zepeda says, “you can see your friends just about anywhere. There’s always someone coming by to say hi. There’s a lot of socializing and a lot of instant messaging.” The proximity builds bonds to create “a very integrated community,” says Molina-Schaefer. She and her roommates, she says, “are like sisters.”

Although the high level of discipline at the military academies might seem restrictive to many college students, military students are philosophical about the need for rules. “We know we’re held to higher standards, and in order for that to occur you have to have these rules,” says Nieves. “If I wanted the ‘college experience,’ I would go to a college.”

Discipline aside, the tough academic schedule is a force to be reckoned with. During their plebe (first) year at the academies, many students struggle to adjust to their workload. Molina-Schaefer, Nieves, Tomazic and Zepeda each felt overwhelmed at the beginning. “Oh, man,” Tomazic groans before reciting a litany of all the classes she had to take at West Point in her plebe year. “Calculus, chemistry, literature, philosophy, psychology — it really was a broad range.” Molina-Schaefer’s academic career at the Naval Academy also started out hard. “Plebe year is overloaded with work and with some very difficult courses,” she says.

Freshmen at the military academies are required to take core technical classes, which can be especially challenging for students with a tendency towards humanities or the social sciences. “Even though I’m a political science major, I’ve always had to take engineering courses like electrical engineering and thermodynamics,” says Molina-Schaefer. It helps that all of her classmates have to take the same courses. “We all help each other get through.”

Cindy Nieves has been a member of the Air Force Academy’s parachute team, Wings of Blue, since 2002, competing at national, regional and collegiate levels.

Camaraderie can help freshmen get used to the military academy system, but so does the availability of professors. At the Air Force Academy the student-to-instructor ratio is very small — sometimes as low as 10 students per class — and professors hold office hours all day until 4:30 or 5. “You have more opportunity to go see them for extra instruction,” says Nieves. “Anytime you have a free period the professors are there for you.” Tomazic agrees: “I had instructors who have given me their home phone numbers and met me on weekends.”

How To Apply:

Each academy has its own applications process. To learn more, visit their admissions websites or call their admission offices.

U.S. Air Force Academy
www.academyadmissions.com
Admissions Phone: (800) 443-9266

U.S. Coast Guard Academy
www.cga.edu/admissions
Admissions Phone: (860) 444-8500

U.S. Military Academy
http://admissions.usma.edu
Admissions Phone: (845) 938-4041

U.S. Naval Academy
www.usna.edu/admissions
Admissions Phone: (410) 293-4361

An additional challenge for Latinas at the academies is the relatively small number of others like them. Although the Coast Guard has the highest percentage of female cadets out of all the academies — between 25 to 30 percent — Zepeda notes the small number of other Hispanics. “In my class, I think there’s about four or five, and in the classes under us there are one or two of us here.” Nieves estimates the number of other Latinas at the Air Force Academy at “maybe ten.”

The Naval Academy takes the prize for the highest number of Latina students. As of July 31, there were 736 women in the brigade, and 74 were Hispanic. Molino-Schaefer says that these numbers are reflected in the school’s atmosphere: “Our Latin American Studies club is getting bigger and bigger, and we have a Latino week once a year.” Latino student organizations like the Compañeros at the Coast Guard Academy and Los Padrinos at the Air Force Academy offer cadets and midshipmen the chance to disseminate Hispanic culture on campus.

For Tomazic, the number of Latino cadets at West Point is not as noticeable as the low number of women — only 15 to 20 percent. “I feel I have a little bit more to prove,” she says. “I want to perform at the level that the male students are performing at.”

Low numbers of women and Latinas might seem to be a threat in places that have historically been sites of hazing and harassment. Yet all four women were adamant that they had not had any negative experiences.

Molina-Schaefer and Nieves both insisted that hazing was nonexistent at the Naval and Air Force Academies. “I’ve never had anyone make a comment. This year I’m the only female on the boxing team, and they are like my band of brothers,” says Molina-Schaefer. Adds Nieves, “A lot of people are looking out for you. … It’s a very supportive environment.”

Tomazic says that while some hazing goes on at West Point, it’s a friendly process that’s “not directed at any particular race or sex,” but rather serves as an initiation rite for incoming freshmen. At the Coast Guard Academy, older female students look out for the new students. In her first year, Zepeda recalls, older females told her to come to them if she ever had a problem. Now, she does the same for incoming students. In addition, the academy has made its zero tolerance rules very clear. As a result, “the guys come into the school knowing that the [hazing] atmosphere isn’t here.”

With or without hazing, the challenge of passing from the rigors of plebe year to the responsibilities of senior year are just a practice run for the real test: life after graduation. Although military academy graduates are required to pay off their free tuition with a certain number of service years, that doesn’t limit their ability to choose from a variety of career options.

Nieves, who is bilingual and served as a translator for her parachute team during an air show in Chile, says that she plans to “use my bicultural background to every advantage possible.” She is thinking about being an Intel officer, and she’s also going to interview for the minority enrollment office position in recruiting. “Definitely, I’ve been involved with the Latin community for my whole life, and being able to give back is one of the things that my mom has always stressed. I guess I’ve taken after her in that aspect,” she says.

Lily Zepeda is the first woman in her family to join the military. At the Coast Guard Academy she is a member of the Hispanic heritage club and team captain of the varsity track team.

Zepeda is contemplating a career either as a helicopter pilot or in border enforcement. The granddaughter of bracero workers and the daughter of immigrants, she says that she initially felt conflicted about “say[ing] ‘no’ to someone trying to enter the country.” But when she spoke about her choice with her grandfather, “he said that he never felt any anger toward the border patrol,” and instead supported her decision to serve her country in any way possible.

Tomazic and Molina-Schaefer also have big plans. Tomazic says that her biggest challenge has been “gaining confidence in myself and my own abilities — and this year, I feel 10 times more confident than I did as a freshman.” As a result, she’s planning on applying to medical school. And Molina-Schaefer hopes to join the Marine Corps and eventually become a military attaché. “I decided that I’ll get out of the military when it stops being challenging and fun,” she says, “and I think that will be a long time from now — if ever.”

These Latinas are still part of the avant-garde: literally, the “front-guard” of Latinas in the U.S. military academies. But they are hoping that others like them will follow. For the next generation of Latina leaders, the military academy experience is a compelling way to develop leadership skills. And who knows — with enough Latinas on the academy campuses, perhaps those infamous inter-school rivalries will begin to fade away as more and more cadets and midshipmen become compañeras.

 

Military Academy Facts

United States Military Academy at West Point
West Point, NY
Website: www.usma.edu
Total number of cadets: 4153
Number of female cadets: 636
Number of Hispanic cadets: 257
Number of Latina cadets: 47

United States Naval Academy
Annapolis, MD
Website: www.usna.edu
Total number of midshipmen: 4,000
Number of female midshipmen: 736
Number of Hispanic midshipmen:
(unavailable)
Number of Latina midshipmen: 74

United States Air Force Academy
Colorado Springs, CO
Website: www.usafa.edu

Total number of cadets: 4240
Number of female cadets: 762
Number of Hispanic cadets: 274
Number of Latina cadets: 56

United States Coast Guard Academy
New London, CT
Website: www.cga.edu
Total number of cadets: 994
Number of female cadets: 243
Number of Hispanic cadets: 48
Number of Latina cadets: 18 (9 in

 

by Julia Young

[This article has been edited for www.latinastyle.com. For the full version, check out the September/October issue of LATINA Style.]

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