May 4, 2018
There was one piece of advice Grace Protzman of Norfolk kept getting before she applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Graduates of the program — including her brother, Ben — emphasized that she had to know why she wanted to attend.
That’s because the U.S. service academies are rigorous, competitive programs.
It takes fortitude — and a clear goal — to first complete the involved application process and then make it through a challenging four years of schooling, followed by a minimum of five years of military service.
Protzman — who was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — and her friend, Jacob Wicker of Norfolk — who was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. — both knew their reasons.
It came down to a desire to serve their country and receive a strong education.
Wicker, who is the son of Edward and Kerry-Lea Wicker, said he knew he wanted to enlist, but his parents encouraged him to also look at receiving a college education. Seeing West Point representatives at a college fair made him think about applying.
Initially, he doubted his ability to get accepted into a program that has a 10 percent acceptance rate, but he revisited the idea over the summer and decided to take a shot. That’s when he found out Protzman, whom he grew up with, was applying to the Air Force Academy, which has a 12 percent acceptance rate.
“I knew I wanted to help serve my country in some sort of way, just being able to serve America because you grow up here and it’s something I really care about,” said Protzman, who is the daughter of Roger and Tricia Protzman. “So I just looked into the option. We visit the academy all the time to see my brother, and I just love the feel of it. It just felt like the right thing.”
To apply to a service academy, there’s a candidate questionnaire, which is used to pre-screen applicants. If qualified, applicants become candidates who go on to complete a checklist, which includes numerous essays and teacher evaluations. An interview with a member of the respective academy’s admission team is required, as is a congressional nomination.
Securing a congressional nomination requires an application process of its own. For example, Wicker said Sen. Ben Sasse required three letters of recommendation and the completion of eight essay questions. There was also an interview with a committee, many of whom were retired military personnel.
Sen. Deb Fischer and U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry have their own similar processes.
Wicker and Protzman, both former students of Keystone Christian Academy, credited the school’s curriculum — particularly its emphasis on writing — in helping prepare them for the application.
There’s also a medical examination and fitness test, which includes a kneeling basketball throw, sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, shuttle run and mile run. All the activities have to be completed one after another with an allotted amount of rest time.
All in all, it was a monthslong process. Luckily, Protzman’s grandmother, Rose Ann Rogers of Norfolk, was there to help.
Rogers previously opened her home as a quiet place to work on application materials to Protzman’s brother, Ben, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2017. She made the same offer to Wicker and Protzman.
“I think knowing that when they came in the door, I would say, ‘So what’d you get done this week?’ kind of kept them accountable,” Rogers said.
She’s a list maker, so she had them mark due dates on a desk calendar. She also set up a mock interview.
“She basically got my butt in gear,” Wicker said. “… I spent a lot of time over at their house just talking through stuff, talking through essays or printing off letters I had to give to people for transcripts or stuff like that.”
So when Wicker and Protzman were accepted within a day of each other, they made sure to celebrate with her.
After musical rehearsal, the Norfolk High students made a late-night visit with a box of donuts. Rogers said it made every minute worth it to know they both got in.
But the fact that they were accepted is still sinking in for the pair.
“It takes a little while to hit you,” Protzman said. “You apply for so many months, so it’s just this idea of this castle in the air that you want, but it doesn’t seem real yet.”
Protzman reports June 28 and Wicker reports July 2. They’re both still contemplating their majors — which must be declared by junior year. However, Wicker is drawn to language and has thought about studying Arabic and wants to go into infantry. Protzman has considered English, behavioral science and humanities so far.
“It’s just this multifaceted breath of fresh air just to be done with the application,” Wicker said. “It’s still like almost every morning, I’ll still wake up and I’ll be looking in the mirror and it’s like, ‘That kid is going to West Point. How did I even get there?’ … You kind of have to pinch yourself every once in a while.”
But to Rogers, watching the process and seeing them get accepted makes her feel reassured.
“I’m just really proud of both of them,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know that our country is in good hands when you’ve got young people who are determined to do something that’s hard, and I got that same feeling when I went to (Ben’s) graduation. You see all these people in uniform and you just go, ‘We’re going to do all right as a country when we have quality young people striving for good things.'"
Jacob Wicker and Grace Protzman, Norfolk High School students who respectively made it into the U.S. Military Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy, at the Norfolk Veterans Home. The friends spent months applying to the service academies with hopes of serving their country and receiving a good education.
Norfolk Daily News/Jake Wragge