The Decker Forum at McDaniel College was crowded with about two dozen teens and their parents Thursday night, an array of eager faces both from the area and from afar that had come to Rep. Chris Van Hollen's annual Service Academy Forums.
These were high school students interested serving in the military or as merchant mariners, and doing so as commissioned officers minted through intense training at one of five highly selective academies: The Naval Academy in Annapolis; the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.; the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.; or the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.
"My office hosts Service Academy Forums every year to help students with an interest in serving our nation to navigate the application process and speak with representatives from our service academies," Van Hollen said in a statement. "The selection process in our area is especially competitive, so the representatives' insights are valuable to applicants and even to younger students who hope to someday apply to an academy.
All of the academies but the Coast Guard require a nomination by a or member of Congress, one of the reasons Van Hollen holds the annual forum, and even with a nomination, admission is not guaranteed. People came ready with questions.
"I know a decent amount about the application process … I'm just hoping to get a more general idea of the requirements and what is a good idea of a candidate for getting into one of these academies," said Joshua Fonseca, a Francis Scott Key High School junior, before the forum. He is interested in attending the U.S. Military Academy and serving in the Army.
"Right now, it's about who you will ask for a nomination and preparing yourself for the physical tests they put you through," Fonseca said.
For Ben Hoffschneider, a junior at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., the trip to Westminster was worth it to get more details on the application process for a nomination to the Naval Academy.
"I have an overall idea, and they do a very good job of explaining it on the website, but there are some things that somebody that has actually done the process can get across better than a website can," he said.
The application process is simple but lengthy and selective, according to an explanation by Joan Kleinman, a member of Van Hollen's staff. An application packet including references, short essay question responses and school transcripts for those seeking admission to an academy in fall 2016 are due no later than Oct. 15, and even those few who receive nominations might not be admitted to the academy of their choice, she said.
"Last November, 37 students from Van Hollen's district interviewed with his review board," Kleinman said. "The academies are currently reviewing those applications, but so far, two of our nominees have been admitted to the Naval Academy and three have received appointments to the Military Academy. Of the 37 students who applied from the congressman's district, 22 listed the U.S. Naval Academy as their first choice."
While many students might have their hearts set on the Naval Academy, Kleinman urged all prospective applicants to consider other academies — and civilian colleges — as backups.
For some students, like Westminster High School sophomore Anna Harrington, the forum was the first taste of service possibilities. She had inclinations but no set expectations.
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"I really want to go to the Naval Academy, but I am also looking at the Air Force Academy," she said. "If I go into the Navy, I would definitely want to be on a destroyer or something, because I think that's so cool."
Harrington was enthusiastic to serve and learn and thought that a service academy would provide a deeper experience than an ROTC program.
"I really like challenges, and I just think it's really cool to go to a service academy. They have a whole bunch of amazing opportunities and a really good education also," she said. "I just think it would be cool to go serve our country."
Students' reasons for wanting to join the military varied: For Hoffschneider, a duty to serve others was an integral part of his Jesuit education at Gonzaga.
For Fonseca, the austerity and rigor of military life — and Army life in particular — has always appealed to his sensibilities.
"It's just about the discipline that they have and the training of soldiers and serving my country; that's what I want to do for my whole life," he said. "Bettering my country and protecting the people that live in it."
Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or email@example.com.