Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
Comes now Kaitlin Stephens serving as a timely example to students returning to school: Do stuff. Do a lot of stuff. Do a lot of different stuff. Do a lot of different stuff AND keep your grades up.
Stephens is a Northside High School graduate entering her third year as a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The proud parents are Kelli and Travis Stephens, who now live in Clarksville. He’s the guy in charge of the Johnson County Area Chamber of Commerce and its economic development wing. We’ll get to mom a little later.
Before we talk about the cadet’s advice on doing stuff, let’s learn more about her first two years in what she describes as an “amped up” college experience.
The toughest part was the freshman year. There was a lot of yelling and being treated as something almost less than human. Folks who have been through boot camp or a military academy will understand. The first thing the military tries to do is to create a new You by detoxing out all the civilian aspects of the old You.
Military academy students don’t have a true college experience. Academic courses are tough out of the gate. There are no remedial courses. The physical education classes are “rigorous,” Stephens says, and cadets are expected to stay in physical shape beyond what the PE classes provide. Cadets march. A lot. Darn near every minute is spoken for. There is structure on top of structure on top of structure.
“It’s just a combination of everything in that freshman year, and getting yelled at all the time,” Stephens said in concluding her explanation of why the first year was tough. “And time management has been one of my biggest lessons.”
She says she wouldn’t trade those tough days, hard classes and demanding physical experiences for anything.
“The bonds you create with people through all of that are bonds that you will not create with anyone else.”
The thing Stephens almost hates as much as being yelled at is being the one yelling. Her new leadership role includes breaking in the new cadets. That includes raising her voice when the newbies act like newbies.
“The yelling – I don’t enjoy that part at all. … That (leadership) requires you to be in charge of people and tell them when they do something wrong. That can be hard,” she said.
Easier is her “squadron peer” job in which she helps cadets acclimate to the military regimen. It is somewhat of a “counselor” role.
“My whole job is to get to know people and make sure they are alright. I’m a very empathic person … and I like helping,” Stephens said, adding that she is careful to not get caught up in drama but instead motivate the cadet to find a solution.
Let’s return, Kind Reader, to our point about doing stuff. The solution for success in a tough environment like a military academy or even the tougher thing called Life After High School and/or Life After Mom and Dad Are No Longer Paying The Bills is to gather up as many experiences and knowledge as possible during those formative junior high and high school years. This advice from Stephens is certainly no big revelation, but the importance to pursue and acquire street and book smarts is critical enough to warrant frequent reminders.
Stephens’ advice to anyone interested in attending a military academy applies to anyone interested in a better quality of life.
“Get involved in a sport. The competitive spirit that comes with that and the time involved will be a big help.”
“Jump on as many outside (extracurricular) activities as possible … but don’t let that (grades) suffer.”
She strongly advises high school students to get a job or volunteer with an organization so that they learn what it means to work with others in a non-academic environment. And for those gifted with above-ordinary physical or academic skills, don’t rest on your laurels. Keep pushing yourself, because attending an Academy will be a wake-up call.
“You get here, and you realize everyone here was at the top of their class, or the class president or whatever, and then you realize, ‘Hey, I’m normal now,’” Stephens said.
This should all be a message for parents, also. But to make it clear, Stephens said her mom instilled early on the routine of being active.
“Because of her, I have been in everything and never really took a minute’s rest,” Stephens said.
Mom’s work – and that of dad, also – is more impressive when noting that Kaitlin is one of four daughters who are all miniature versions of their big sister with respect to always doing stuff.
It’s not easy on the parents. Stephens, through a Rotary exchange program, spent a year of her high school time in Brazil. As a parent, I miss my children something terrible after a few days. Not sure about a whole school year.
But it paid off in ways Stephens or mom and dad could not have known. Stephens learned to speak Portuguese while in Brazil. Part of the Academy experience is learning a language. She was able to jump ahead to a junior-level Portuguese language class in her freshman year, and as a sophomore she participated in an independent language study class.
And because of her language skills, she was recently one of just a few Air Force Academy cadets to meet with Brazilian Air Force Commander Gen. Juniti Saito.
Stephens was recently one of about 1,000 cadets participating in a commitment ceremony in which cadets affirm serving two more years to complete the Academy and then five years of military service after graduation. She hopes to be an intelligence officer when she graduates. But another choice is “contracting,” in which she would help the Air Force conduct the business of being the Air Force.
“That translates really well into the civilian world,” Stephens said, reaffirming possibly without intending to do so that doing a lot of stuff is maximized when it involves Planning Ahead.
So we end as we began with a simple reminder – sans the yelling – to students with respect to planning ahead: Do stuff. Your momma and daddy can’t do it for you. Do a lot of stuff. The government can’t do it for you – no matter how much it claims otherwise. Do a lot of different stuff. Those fancy electronic devices can’t do it for you. Do a lot of different stuff AND keep your grades up.
Sometimes it is all about you.