By Mary-Justine Lanyon
Nearly four years after finally realizing her dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, McKenzie Eshleman is on the home stretch to graduation.
Getting there was no easy task. Eshleman graduated from Rim High in 2017 with a 5.0 GPA, membership in six Rim High clubs, was captain of the track team and received multiple nominations to the various service academies. Despite that record, she was not accepted into any of them.
Did she give up? Certainly not.
Being the persistent and tenacious person she is, Eshleman rallied and came up with a plan. Having heard about Northwestern Preparatory School, which holds its classes at Camp Paivika in Crestline, she enrolled.
The program was rigorous – in itself a preparation for the Naval Academy. Eshleman and the other students endured 15-hour school days, seven days a week. In addition to their academics, they took the candidate fitness assessment test every other week. “I had thought I was physically fit,” Eshleman said, “but I got in the best shape of my life at Northwestern.”
Those efforts paid off. She went through the application and nomination process again, was first wait-listed at Annapolis and then accepted as a plebe.
Fast forward to today when Eshleman is a midshipman first class – a “firstie.” She has just received her service assignment – her job after graduation in May – surface warfare. She will be in charge of a division of 15 to 50 sailors on a ship.
“I’ve already done that,” Eshleman noted. Last summer she spent time out on a new destroyer, the USS Paul Ignatius DDG117. “I followed an ensign (which will be Eshleman’s rank when she graduates next May) and got to see what her actual job is. We went out into the Atlantic (the ship was based in Mayport, Fla.), shot the big guns and did a number of tests.”
Since it was a new ship, the crew had to test its five-inch guns and do a full-speed run, forwards and backwards, at 33 knots.
“I got to take the conn – drive the ship,” Eshleman said, “for two hours. Driving a multimillion-dollar warship in the middle of the Atlantic was awesome!”
Last summer the cyber warfare major also had the opportunity to travel to Estonia. She was one of eight midshipmen who attended the 13th annual NATO International Conference on Cyber Conflict (CyCON). CyCON is an annual conference focusing on the intersection of cybersecurity, policy and international partnerships hosted by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence.
While there, Eshleman worked with NATO and took classes.
The midshipman is already exercising her leadership skills. As the First Battalion drill officer, she is in charge of 750 midshipmen. They parade before every home football game and march into lunch every day, something she helps execute.
She is also the Second Company first lieutenant which, she said, means she in charge of her company’s area. “I help with anything that’s broken, put in work orders to get it fixed. I also help execute white-glove inspections of the rooms.”
As for why she took on this responsibility, Eshleman said she wanted to be more involved with her company, which includes about 150 students.
The Rim High graduate is also president of the Naval Academy’s STEM outreach through which area students from elementary to high school either come to the Academy or the midshipmen go to their schools.
“We teach them the importance of STEM,” Eshleman said. “We try to teach them that STEM is fun, something you can pursue in college.” She was in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago doing STEM outreach. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” she said.
Recently Eshleman was in charge of a virtual girls-only STEM day in which 400 middle school girls participated. “We showed them a PowerPoint presentation of women who were first in their fields but not the last,” she said, adding what she told the girls is “we want you to become an astronaut, a chemist, a physicist.”
In February, Eshleman will get to choose her home port and her ship in an event she likens to the NFL draft. Each home port for surface warfare will be listed with magnets representing each ship below those ports. She hopes to be based in Mayport – “I loved that base,” she said. And she hopes to be on a destroyer, having enjoyed her time on the USS Paul Ignatius. On her first tour, Eshleman won’t know what her specific job is until the captain contacts her.
Being at the Naval Academy has been a challenge the entire time, Eshleman said. Her “youngster” year – sophomore year at nonmilitary schools – she struggled with whether or not she really wanted to be in the Navy.
However, after talking with family, friends and officers at Annapolis, she was able to realign her sights on what she wanted to do. “I want to be in the Navy,” she said.
And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Eshleman again struggled. The midshipmen were confined to campus and had to follow Department of Defense protocol. No visitors were allowed. And then the virus got so bad on campus, she said, they were restricted to their rooms.
“It was very challenging mentally,” she said. And it was also challenging to stay physically fit.
Fortunately, Eshleman has three roommates who made the ordeal somewhat bearable.
In her third year at the Academy – as a midshipman second class – Eshleman noticed a shift in herself. “I realized I was here to mentor younger sailors,” she said. “The lives of people’s sons and daughters will depend on me so I have to push through and become the best version of myself before I graduate and continue growing.”
Recently, Eshleman has been part of Operation Information, traveling to meet with potential candidates for the Naval Academy. Just back from a session in Temecula, she said she was getting a lot of questions on how to prepare for the Congressional interview. “It reminded me what a long process it was,” she said.
In the end, Eshleman said, it has all been worth it.
“I am proud to wear my uniform and I am proud to say I’m in the U.S. Navy.”