Home for Thanksgiving, U.S. Naval Academy students share advice to Utah high schoolers

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From left: U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen Jackson DuPaix, Jonathan Dollahite, Kayla Cronin, and Maxwell Pereira.

SANDY, Utah (ABC4) – Gathered in a nondescript room in the corner of the Sandy City Library on Tuesday night, a group of 10 or so teenagers with sky-high aspirations have come to learn the ins of outs of getting into one of the most prestigious universities in the country, the U.S. Naval Academy.

Receiving admission to the Annapolis, Maryland-based service academy involves putting oneself through one of the most grueling college application processes in the country. The class of 2024, for example, saw just 9% of those who began an application receive an offer of appointment. Once you’re in, it’s no cakewalk, either. New Midshipmen candidates must endure a rigorous training period known as ‘Plebe Summer,’ just to prove their mental and physical capacity to endure their time at the Academy.

From the looks and sounds of the program, it hardly – if ever – gets easier.

Still, these kids want to be in Annapolis and it’s not hard to see why by looking at the front of the room, where four Utah-based Midshipmen are taking time to answer a bevy of questions about their experiences at the Academy.

While the men and the woman leading the discussion are just a few years older, and still in their early 20s, their presence is commanding. They walked in, dressed in full uniform, white caps in hand – wearing the cap indoors is a big no-no – and introduced themselves with firm handshakes, square jaws, courtesy, and friendly hellos.

They sit up straight while they answer questions with an astounding touch of eloquence for people their age, but the atmosphere is surprisingly relaxed. After all, these are still young people and they are committed to being themselves.

They’re also extremely decorated already in their young lives. The oldest of the group, Jonathan Dollahite, who goes by J.D., won the state tennis championship as a single all four years while attending Mountain View High. Jackson DuPaix also came from a legendary local sports family and is currently studying weapons robotics and control engineering at the Academy. Maxwell Pereira comes from a family of Naval Academy graduates and plays hockey at the school as he did for East High. The group’s lone female, Kayla Cronin, quotes Stoicism philosophies and details her schedule as a robotics major, a member of the club volleyball, and a leader in the sexual harassment education program on campus.

Again, these Midshipmen are only in their early 20s.

Cronin’s parents have joined the room to support their daughter, who they say has always been extremely motivated and confident. Although her father, Ken, served in the Air Force for over 30 years and would have been able to send his daughter to college on his G.I. Bill, she had no interest in the assistance.

Kayla wanted to do it her way.

“She saw the, you know, what it was requiring us to do, and she told us, ‘I want to make sure you guys don’t have to pay for my education,’” her father recalls. “So, she did everything on her own, we did not help her.”

As a 2nd Class student, or a junior, as most colleges would call it, Cronin’s parents say they have seen a noticeable difference in her maturity.

“We’ve already seen her growing,” Ken says. “The Academy has probably taken her to a more serious approach on life. There are challenges for her there and she learned and grew through those challenges.”

There are plenty of difficulties at the Academy by the sound of the Midshipmen’s responses to the inquiring future applicants. This week, Dollahite is home for Thanksgiving for the first time since 2015. All of them have sacrificed some degree of their personal lives, including their dating prospects, at times.

Still, they’ve been able to do and see amazing things as part of their education. Pereira recently spent a month or so in San Diego working with servicemen in the area. DuPaix was able to spend a week on a submarine last summer, shadowing the responsibilities of an officer on deck.

“It’s tight,” he says of the conditions in the sub, but not in the ‘cool’ way, but in the literal sense as he describes his cramped sleeping quarters on a bed about two feet wide. “You get real close with everybody.”

One of the requirements at the Academy is maintaining a high level of physical fitness and also being involved with an extracurricular activity. Naturally, this attracts a lot of athletes.

Brooks Clements IV, who played tight end for Lehi High, which had a magical run of upset en route to the 5A state championship this year, is in the library and in the process of preparing his application, which will require a nomination from a member of Congress, to the Academy.

Standing a lanky but towering 6-foot-5 with flowing, bleached-blonde hair, Clements grew up in a Navy family and felt additionally motivated after his time speaking with the Midshipmen on Tuesday.

“It was kind of inspiring because I’ve dreamed of living that life for such a long time,” he explains to ABC4.com. “It’s cool to see people who actually do it.”

Clements’ dad, Brooks Clements III, came along with him and knows the Navy life well. His father was a pilot in the Navy on a nuclear-powered submarine. While he didn’t enter the Academy or the armed forces himself, the older Brooks sees his son, less than a week off of an upset over Springville in the state title game, having the chops to make it through life in the service.

“Having seen him come through high school, he’s the top student in his class, getting a 30 on the ACT, and that while preparing for a long state championship run, that requires a lot of regimented time,” Brooks III says. “And I think not every kid’s cut out for that college lifestyle, but sports definitely help.”

But the bleached hair, which Clements IV dyed in solidarity with his teammates, will have to go. “I’m getting ready to chop this bleached hair off,” he laments “But yeah, I do like the mullet, so that will be hard.”

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