Even though they’ve just graduated from high school, a select few among the Class of 2021 have already charted a course beyond the next four years in college.
Their aspirations include aviation, engineering and medicine, but they have one thing in common: they’ve decided that they’ll be in the best position to pursue those dreams as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces.
There are two ways to do that out of high school, and neither one is easy. Pinecrest’s Jaiden Washington and Union Pines’ Liam McShea have each earned a coveted spot at one of the nation’s military academies.
Both secured nominations from U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson: Washington to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and McShea to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The top two students in Pinecrest’s graduating class this year are heading off to traditional colleges, but not just for the academics. Victoria Kays and Monica Etowski, the class’ No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, will balance classroom studies at elite universities along with military training on ROTC scholarships that cover all the costs of their education in exchange for a commitment to serve for five years after graduation.
Kays will attend Wake Forest University on an Army ROTC scholarship and Etowski is headed to the University of Notre Dame on a Navy ROTC scholarship — both valued at around $250,000.
From Union Pines, Aubrey Withrow will be enrolling at the University of South Carolina on an Army ROTC Scholarship and Cameron Gibson has earned an Air Force ROTC scholarship to Mississippi State University. Chris Clark will also be joining ROTC at N.C. State University as an uncontracted cadet.
They’re all standout students in their respective high schools in the classroom and on the athletic fields. But all the same, they’ll be starting the next phase of their education on the bottom rung of the ladder as the next generation of military leaders.
Lt. Col. Lawrence Rubal, a professor of military science at Wake Forest, presented Kays’ scholarship in a ceremony at Pinecrest this past week. Tom Holleman, a retired Navy officer, presented awards to Etowski and Washington at the same time.
Students selected for the military academies and ROTC scholarships are among an elite group. Navy ROTC accepts about 1,600 students nationwide from nearly 30,000 applicants. At the U.S. Naval Academy, Washington will be one of 1,300 plebes selected from 16,000 applicants.
The impressive resumes that put them there, though, only hint at the potential that the military plans to capitalize upon.
“All of it, at the end of the day, leads to why she got the scholarship in the first place: it’s not because of her performance and what she’s done already; it’s for the potential she has to lead our greatest resource, which is America’s sons and daughters,” Ruval said of Kays’ application.
“We’re not asking her to blindly follow. They’re not paying the six figures on that check so that she can follow the person in front of her. They're going to ask her to critically think through some of the most complex problems that we see in the national security environment we see overseas and here in the United States.”
Like their ultimate career goals, the future officers share a diverse set of motivations. Kays is the daughter of two former officers, and the granddaughter of a one-star general who taught at West Point.
“I’ve always wanted to serve my country, but I didn’t know how until I started looking at their medical school and I realized that I could do both at the same time,” she said.
“My parents were my biggest motivation for wanting to be in the military. They inspired me and have raised me to seize every opportunity given to me.”
As an ROTC scholar she will get the best of both worlds at Wake Forest, which she describes as her dream school, as she works toward her goal of being an orthopedic surgeon.
After college she plans to apply to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Washington, D.C. and, if everything goes as she’d like, intern at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“Being in the medical field, you get way more experience in the military because it’s more hands-on,” said Kays. “You’re not learning as much as you are on the job. They need you.”
Kays and Etowski both play soccer for Pinecrest, over a period of time that has seen the program advance to two state championship games.
At Notre Dame, Monica Etowski will take 10 courses in naval science during her collegiate career while also studying aerospace engineering. She grew up with a keen awareness of her grandparents’ military service that was only heightened during a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“My dad was looking at the wall for a name. He stopped and pointed at a name, and obviously I didn’t recognize it. He told me that was his grandfather, that his grandfather died in Vietnam. Not only did I find out that I had all of the living grandparents that I knew that served, then another one who died fighting for his country. It really just made me think that serving is something I could see myself doing.”
As they balance those two educational tracks, ROTC scholars also begin to absorb military culture and courtesies and hone their physical fitness. But Etowski is focused on the day she graduates — which will be followed, very shortly, by the day she accepts an officer’s commission. She sees it as, hopefully, the fastest track toward the cockpit of a fighter jet.
“I’m really excited that I get to graduate as an officer and not have to start at the beginning of the process,” she said.
Washington might almost feel at home when he heads to the Naval Academy later this month for the start of plebe summer. He’s spent two summers there: one in a STEM program, and last summer he got a foot in the door as a potential midshipman by attending the Academy’s summer seminar.
“I just loved it there,” said Washington. “I had the opportunity to explore the Academy and see what life there is like.”
He’s ready for what comes next, thanks to experiences in Pinecrest’s football program under Coach Chris Metzger, and in becoming an Eagle Scout, that have prepared him to put his best foot forward in any circumstances.
“Both of those organizations taught me so many different character and leadership lessons that I hope I can take with me wherever I go in the future,” he said.
“I think the hardest part will be the mental part, just trying to tough through the challenges. I know the physical portion will be tough, but you mostly just have to overcome that mentally. Something I learned from Coach Metzger is that your mind will quit before your body does. That’s something you have to overcome.”
Liam McShea is also feeling confident in his own mental resilience, thanks to rugby and wrestling, as he graduates from Union Pines and prepares for West Point. Having moved around with his father’s Army career — he lived in Germany for his first two years of high school — McShea is no stranger to the military lifestyle.
“It’s a mixed bag. I think for me it’s been positive because each place allows you to grow in a different way,” he said.
He’s keeping his mind open to new opportunities that might come his way at the Naval Academy. For now he’s considering studying economics or Chinese, possibly both, and looking toward a career as an infantry officer — maybe even Special Forces.
McShea reports to the Academy at the end of the month. From there his summer will be consumed with military drill activities and physical training.
“I’m not nervous right now,” he said. “I might be nervous the day before I leave, but I think I’m prepared for it.”
Aubrey Withrow says she’s always wanted to serve the United States like her grandfather did as a combat medic in Vietnam. Military intelligence might also be the ideal springboard to her dream career at the FBI, which doesn’t hurt.
She’s planning to study criminology at the University of South Carolina, and possibly add a second major in psychology as the first step toward a career she hopes will guide her toward the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit.
“I’ve always been kind of interested in learning about what makes people tick, and the reasons why people do what they do,” Withrow said. “I’ve been pretty set on going into law enforcement just because of my military aspirations as well. It’s every kid’s dream to be the secret agent; I’m just one of the people who actually sees it as a career and wants to go into it.”
Cameron Gibson’s father served in the Air Force and the Army during his military career, so the service is almost second nature to him.
Gibson was attracted to Mississippi State’s engineering programs. When he gets there, his ROTC uniform and full scholarship won’t be the only thing that sets him apart. He’s also on track to earn his private pilot’s license.
“I’ve moved around a whole bunch, but it just kind of felt like home, I was comfortable and it has a lot of really good programs,” Gibson said.
At this point he said that he can see himself spending 20 years in the Air Force to qualify for full retirement, and even pursuing a cybersecurity path if flying doesn’t work out.
Chris Clark knew that he would attend N.C. State even before taking a serious step toward the military. He’s learned firsthand, from both of his parents’ service, the value of military training and leadership experience even in the private sector.
He’s planning to major in computer and electrical engineering, and would like to spend his time in the Army in either cybersecurity or signals intelligence.
“It wasn’t until January of this year when I really started thinking about my future after high school. It was coming up so fast and I was trying to decide whether I wanted to go to college normally or join ROTC,” he said.
“Going to my dad’s retirement ceremony and seeing everything the military gave him; my dad’s a prime example of what the Army can give me for opportunities later in life.”