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Engineering Graduates Among Those Commissioned

Hampton Roads NRTOC Logo

They stood tall in their crisp dress uniforms, shoulders back, arms straight at their sides.

And they kept their eyes straight ahead and their looks solemn - to a point.

After the pinnings, as they marched across the stage Friday morning with the achievement not just of graduating from college but of becoming officers in the Army, Marine Corps or Navy, the 52 graduates had difficulty suppressing grins as they received their first salutes.

Heather Cantrell chose to receive hers from her father, who served three years in the Navy and helped inspire her to pursue a Navy career before she'd even entered high school.

That seemed like so long ago as she reached up to return her father's salute on Friday. Her stoic expression gave way to a smile, and by the time her arm dropped, she was grinning, and she gave her dad a huge hug.

"I feel like my life as an adult is finally beginning," Cantrell, 22, said. "I've been in school for 19 years, and I am ready to actually have a career and start my life."

While most ninth-graders were tackling geometry and the social order of high school, Cantrell was plotting the path to a Navy leadership role via a college degree.

"It started off me and my dad looking at the Academy together," Cantrell said. But she wanted to have the regular "college experience," something no one else in her family had achieved.

That's when she discovered ROTC, a military program that works within civilian colleges to train future officers.

Students who go through the program must commit in advance to a service branch.

"Just applying for it speaks so highly for the students here," said Lt. j.g. Jacqueline Fitzmorris, the officer in charge of the commissioning ceremony. "They are extremely locked on."

In Cantrell's junior year of high school, she narrowed down to five the colleges she would apply to. All were on the East Coast - far from her hometown of Corning, Calif. She did her senior project on being a Navy officer.

She got into her first choice college - Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., - but ROTC placed her at Old Dominion University. Only afterward did she learn that her older brother Kendall, who was already in the Navy, was going to be stationed here. She also has an aunt in Portsmouth.

The college experience was all she'd longed for. She surrounded herself with a group of friends - some from ROTC, others through her brother in the Navy and her job grooming dogs, which she loves.

ROTC life is challenging. The students get up early to do physical training on campus three times a week. They have general military drilling on the fourth morning, all while other students sleep. They must maintain a grade point average of at least 2.5.

"Freshman year was tough, seeing all the other college kids going out and having study sessions, and I had to say 'I can't do this,' " Cantrell acknowledged. "I got used to it."

During her freshman and junior summers, Cantrell was assigned to Navy ships and saw firsthand what Navy life is like. It fueled her yearning to get under way and see the world.

She starts in June on the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, where she will be thrown into her surface warfare officer role. "I drive the ship," she said.

She couldn't be more excited.

Cantrell was one of 52 ROTC students commissioned Friday. Of them, 24 are Navy, two are Marine Corps, and 26 are Army. Seven already had served as enlisted personnel on combat deployments.

Most were ODU students, and a respectable amount of engineering graduates, but three of the Navy officers were from Norfolk State University, and two from Hampton University, who share the ROTC program with ODU.

In his comments, ODU President John Broderick said that every morning, the ROTC students are the first he sees, doing their physical training. "It's truly inspiring," he said.

After the ceremony, after hugging her family and her friends, a young Navy ensign came over to give Cantrell a hug. Ashley Redus graduated from the ROTC program last year and has been assigned to the amphibious assault ship Wasp for a year.

She came back to offer support for those who come after her.

"It's a journey," she said. "There's no preparation for what they are about to go through other than mentorship."

Originially appearing in The Virginian-Pilot: http://hamptonroads.com/2014/05/years-dreams-work-pay-officers-rank-salute.