R.J. Russel with Col. James Ramsey./Karen Hain
While most high school seniors are gearing up for a long, relaxing summer before college, Richard John (R.J.) Russel III is preparing to leave home and hop on a flight June 30.
He is headed toward something he has been preparing for most of his life: a college career at The United States Military Academy at West Point in New York.
Russel was recognized at Wednesday's Marysville Board of Education meeting for his admission to the prestigious military institution. Col. James Ramsey, admissions field force officer, presented him with a certificate of appointment. The auditorium's crowd gave Russel a standing ovation.
"I am confident that R.J. will do a great job at West Point. I know his family, friends, and community are very proud of him," Ramsey says.
R.J.'s proud parents, Richard and Tara Russel, display the West Point banner./Karen HainA few minutes earlier, Russel showed up to our interview in a sophisticated, crisp blue suit, with side-slicked blond hair, and an easy smile. He was prepared, as always: the West Point letter of assurance he received, one of only two in the state, didn't come by chance.
According to Ramsey, the four-year federal undergraduate college receives around 16,000 applications each year, and it accepts 1,200.
Russel is at the top of his class academically and scored 35 on the ACT, but West Point applications go beyond regular college standards like essays, grades, test scores, and recommendations. The school requires Congressional nominations, normally from United States representatives or senators, and applicants write essays to even be considered for an interview. There are also physical fitness assessments, psychological exams, resumes, photographs, and then dental records, fingerprints, and more once accepted.
"They look at you in every dynamic," Russel says.
While his supportive parents provided resources and Ramsey was on top of deadlines, Russel says he is proud that he took it upon himself to plan and organize his dreams.
Ramsey says it is not enough to simply be involved in extracurricular activities. West Point cadets are leaders, and applicants must stand out as so.
Russel has participated in 4-H for five years; Science Olympiad for four (captain for two); robotics for four (captain of the build team); did Quiz Bowl; is a three-sport athlete (swim, track, cross-country); took part in poetry club; is the president of his class and Marysville High School's National Honor Society; and volunteers at soup kitchens as often as possible.
Russel is also the president of the St. Clair County Community Foundation's Youth Advisory Council where he has enjoyed meeting new people and helping young students new to the council become less timid.
Derek Daly became a YAC advisor in October, and Russel helped relieve some of the pressure of his new role.
"It was amazing to me that he could have the time to be in YAC, let alone be so prepared that he had read all of the grand Col. James Ramsey, right, chats with R.J. Russel and his friends./Karen Hainapplications beforehand and could lead discussions on any given grant at any time," Daly says. "It has been a real honor getting to know him."
Community Foundation Vice President Jackie Hanton has known Russel since he was 5 years old and would accompany his mom, Tara, to YAC events where she and Hanton were advisors. Hanton says he was kind and conscientious about the world growing up. She remembers laughing seeing an elementary school aged Russel giving her husband a lesson on spending and saving, including giving to charity.
"You knew he was special from the time he was a little kid, and he's carried that through junior and high school," Hanton says. "He has never lost that desire to help instill in his peers the importance of charity and youth leadership and what philanthropy can do for your community."
Russel speaks about all of these accomplishments with neither nervousness nor ego, perhaps because his intentions are authentically rooted in the values that go hand-in-hand with West Point: duty, honor, and country; and the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
The new cadet is a history enthusiast who recalls idolizing soldiers "accomplishing the impossible" instead of superheroes as a child. While West Point expects academic, military, and athletic excellence, the military aspect stands out to him and has since he started looking into colleges in eighth grade.
"That's the kind of person I want to be. The values are all about being selfless, being part of a bigger thing," he says.
Going on, he adds that, yes, college will prepare him for a successful career, "but that's not the point." He doesn't want college to be about himself. It goes back to the helpful nature his mentors described. Russel wants to train and better himself so he can be dependable and make the world a better place for others.
Russel's friend Derek Wilson has seen these traits, in tune with West Point's high ethical standards of character, already.
"His personality is like none other. He puts everyone first. He wants everyone to be happy, and if he notices someone who is down in the dumps, he goes out of his way to cheer them up," says Wilson.
R.J. Russel with his robotics teammates.The demanding rigor of West Point's expectations in academics, military leadership, and athletics could be daunting. Russel's schedule in high school was; he sometimes pulled "grueling" 15 hour school days in the winter. He imagines West Point as having the taxing academics of places like Harvard with extra military duties like mail, laundry, and training on weekends. Instead of focusing on stress, the words "fortunate," "lucky," and "grateful" fly out of Russel's mouth multiple times when he talks about the work he does, and will do. He sees the sacrifices he makes as opportunities to connect with people and contribute.
After finishing their bachelor of science degrees, most cadets move on to their Army commitment and are second lieutenants. Russel is hoping to be one of up to 20 per class that goes to medical school after his four years, eventually becoming a psychiatrist. If not, he will be happy aiding through his infantry service, and attending medical school afterward.
Russel reports July 2 to the prestigious school where he starts cadet basic training. The Army provides room, board, medical and dental coverage, classes, books, uniforms, a computer, and a monthly stipend. The ambitious student is leaving behind people and a home in the Blue Water Region that helped form his strong foundation.
"The people around here--I can't even begin to explain how amazing they are and how much they mean to me. This place has prepared me for a lot, and I've learned so many life lessons," he says. "I am unbelievably fortunate and privileged to have such a rock solid family and friends I can call on for anything."
He especially thanks his parents, grandparents, sister, Ramsey, the Community Foundation, his school, girlfriend, and friends.
So for the young adult who has it all--who has earned it all--I ask what his challenges leading up West Point are. First, he knows he puts pressure on himself and will need to take care of himself, which includes making time for family and friends. He continually wants to learn. And push-ups, he could work on those! You bet he is up for the challenge.