Giving Annapolis a try

Summer sessions give high-schoolers a taste of life at the Naval Academy

June 25, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

As they marched onto a freshly cut football field on the Naval Academy campus, the young men and women looked a little out of sync.

Their arms and legs did not move as much in unison, and their turns were not so crisp as one would expect from a march at the elite military college. They also wore T-shirts and shorts, a far cry from the immaculate whites or blues midshipmen don for formations and drills during weekly parades.

The approximately 600 marchers also looked too young to be Mids, and a little weary.

In fact, they were not midshipmen but soon-to-be high school seniors who had come to Annapolis for a Naval Academy Summer Seminar, a camp that allows prospective applicants to try a week at the academy.

In June, perhaps the slowest month for the school and its 4,000 students, about 1,890 teenagers have come to the academy from all over the country, many of them deciding between Annapolis and prestigious private schools. They attend one of three camps held this month.

"I've loved it so far," said Christopher Fletcher, who will be a senior at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills. "I really like the sense of community you feel with everybody else. And the sense of order breaks down the barriers that usually exist between people. People seem like equals, and I like that."

Among the drawbacks for Fletcher, who is applying to several Ivy League schools, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, is all the time he would have to spend honing military skills and the five years he would have to serve in the Navy or Marine Corps after graduation.

"For me, academics come first, so I'm not sure how much I would appreciate this whole other side of things here," he said.

Another aspect of academy life that looms large in the eyes of many camp participants is the daunting first year, during which plebes are assigned hundreds of menial tasks such as memorizing menus for upperclassmen and having to move through their sprawling dormitory only by jogging. They also lose all media privileges, so they can't watch movies or television or listen to music.

Matthew Haldeman, a senior who is running the summer seminars, said the midshipmen leaders try hard to simulate the rigors of academy life and military order.

"For a lot of us, this was the sole reason we decided to come to the academy, so we try to give that same experience to the high school students," said Haldeman, 21. "We want it to mean as much for them as it did for us."

About 120 sophomores also participate in the program to try out their leadership skills, Haldeman said.

The seminar is a great leadership laboratory, he said, because after the students leave, the sophomores can try another method at the next camp if they were too harsh or too easy on the "kids."

The program is not as competitive as the academy's admissions standards, although students are screened based on the same criteria of academics, physicality and noteworthy accomplishments.

Between 5,300 and 5,500 apply annually to the summer camp, and of the 1,890 who participate, 400 on average end up attending the academy. The cost of the camp is $300, plus travel expenses.

The students stay in the dorms during the six-day session. The last camp ended Thursday. They go through many 90-minute seminars that sample the 19 majors offered at the academy, and they are also exposed to arduous physical requirements at the military college.

Those include the drills they were practicing Monday, waking up at 5 a.m. to be tested on their endurance and strength, and a daylong obstacle course that mirrors what they would face at the end of the plebe year. They also go to Arlington National Cemetery to watch Marines perform silent drills.

Kyle Checchi, who just finished his plebe year and helped 10 students through the summer program, said most in his squad were concerned about how their weekends would be restricted and whether they could give up music for a year.

"We try hard to simulate it and to answer all the questions we can, but it's difficult to imagine going through that year," said Checchi, 19, a San Ramon, Calif. native. "Not many of them have thought hard about what they want in life, so five years can sound like a long time. But the more they understand the feeling you get when you decide to serve your country, that five years starts to shrink."

Kevin Holland, an Annapolis native who attends Broadneck High School, said he was surprised by the difficulty of the physical tests.

"It's definitely shown me some glaring weaknesses," he said. "I have a lot to work on before next year."

He plans to apply to the academy, the University of Virginia and Bucknell, James Madison and Wake Forest universities. If he gets into the academy and Virginia, he said, the choice will be tough.

"I know about five Mids really well, and they're great guys," he said. "My grandfather used to work here, and it's a great lifestyle. I enjoy the honor, and the free education is also an incentive. But I'm worried about plebe year, and the five years could be tough, depending on the assignment."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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