Just two weeks after I graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia, PA, I began basic training at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. After six weeks of push-ups, pull-ups, battle drills, and walking uphill with weights for what seemed like hundreds of miles, I successfully completed cadet training known as “BEAST.” I returned from the woods and immediately started my first semester of college.
I am grateful for the lessons I learned from my National Honor Society (NHS) experience and the structure it provided me in high school. In particular, the four pillars of NHS—scholarship, service, leadership, and character—as well as citizenship, are all values that I am committed to at West Point.
Compared to my time in high school, scholarship looks slightly different these days. At West Point, where the motto is “Duty, Honor, Country,” we take classes and earn grades in academic, military, physical, and character programs. In the military and physical components, many tasks are team-based. For example, when I messed up in basic training, my whole platoon would “get smoked,” aka assigned extra exercise.
The responsibility that I took on as president of my school’s NHS chapter helped prepare me for the responsibility that I now have to my platoon. In high school, if someone needed help registering to vote, I was not only responsible for walking them through the process but also ensuring they understood the importance of their vote. Because if not, there would be consequences that would not only impact that individual but our school and the larger community. My time participating in NHS taught me that citizenship and responsibility go hand in hand and this lesson especially serves me well at West Point.
Personally, the character program is where I have grown the most since becoming a cadet, with strong character repeatedly being necessary to complete tasks. Whether it has been learning to accept help from my “battle buddies” (fellow cadets) or “hunting the good stuff” (finding things to look forward to and be grateful for) while sleeping in the woods through a thunderstorm, I understand that character can shape whether a mission is a success or failure.
The Importance of Representation
Some people may wonder why I decided to join the Army and attend West Point. To me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to exercise my leadership, service, and character skills and to counter the lack of representation of Black women in the military and in STEM careers. I’ve always wanted to major in computer science or cyber security. I’ve long been fascinated by both subjects, and I want to ensure there’s more diversity in STEM. With the rise of technology, our generation will continue to face key ethical issues, and we need more Black women to explore and debate them.
At West Point, I have participated in the Leadership Ethics and Diversity in STEM (LEADS) conferences in Indianapolis and Detroit. As a cadet participant at these conferences, I have mentored middle school students in robotics and STEM ethics, and I have advised them on how to make it through high school and into college. This mentoring is the type of service that is very familiar to me.
When it came to taking on Black representation in the Army, I wasn’t sure that I could share my perspective and be accepted. But after just a few months of being at West Point, I have overcome my fear of holding back my views. In high school and where I grew up in Philadelphia, I was surrounded by people with similar opinions. But that’s not the world we live in.
Because I am committed to helping the voices of Black people be heard, in high school I participated in #GetOutTheVote efforts and volunteered with organizations like Black Voters Matter. I wanted to ensure that Black people in my community had voting representation. The right to vote is paramount to democracy, and I want to defend democracy. My passion for our democracy directly connects to my decision to attend West Point. When you enlist in the Army, you swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. I am proud of my oath and grateful to NHS for helping prepare me to take it.
Sheyla Street is the 2021 NHS Scholarship National Winner and a graduate of Central High School in Philadelphia, PA. She is in her first year at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY. This article first appeared as a post on the School of Thought blog.
Want to read more about Sheyla’s leadership journey? Read our Q&A with her online at bit.ly/3wwBKwi.