FORT MILL — After sending in his school test scores, a 500-word essay, three letters of recommendation, a full resume, and surviving an intense barrage of evaluation in a round-circle interview, Jonathan Nguyen was finally relaxing at home. Content that he had been accepted to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., beginning Thursday, Nguyen (pronounced “Win”) happily greeted family while nibbling on spring rolls.
It was no eggs Benedict with fresh strawberries and cream, but a celebration brunch like the one he had recently with U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney doesn’t happen everyday.
“It was a nice morning,” Nguyen said, smiling. “My parents (Xuan-Thu and Phap) and I really enjoyed ourselves and getting to talk to the congressman.”
It wasn’t the years of experience Nguyen had in Fort Mill High School’s Marine-inspired JROTC program, but the tragic death of a close relative that spurred the 18-year old’s interest in the service academy. Ricky Nguyen, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, would regularly entertain his younger cousin Jonathan by bringing him small model planes to play with. In 2001, Ricky was killed in a car accident. Jonathan had been the ring-bearer at his older cousin’s wedding.
“I feel like I owe this to the country,” Nguyen said. “I guess you could say I set the bar pretty high for myself.”
To even be considered for a military academy, officials say, is a highly selective process, which requires a full recommendation by either a member of the House of Representatives or both U.S. senators from the applicant’s state. Nguyen reached out to all three and received appointment offers from every service academy he applied to.
The selective process is worth it to insure that “the best of the best” is chosen to attend the nation’s military academies, one of Mulvaney’s aides explained.
After several months of paperwork, Nguyen underwent a demanding round-table interview from a committee that included academy graduates and military officers.
“They would ask me things like ‘Why should we invest half a million dollars into your education?’” he said. “I figured, I’ve made it this far and I’m not going to quit.”
“[The committee] is well positioned to say ‘this is a great person,’” said Park Gillespie, constituent service director for Mulvaney’s office. “These are the people who will lead the sons and daughters of the future. We’ve got to bring in the people who have the right stuff.”
Mulvaney sat down with Nguyen and his parents for a celebratory lunch earlier this month and confessed that he was immediately impressed by his new nomination.
“It doesn’t take long when you meet him to know we made the right decision,” the congressman said. “These kids are the very best the community produces and it’s immediately apparent that Jonathan is no exception.”
Mulvaney said he and his office are making the commitment to do more outreach to local high schools, saying he was surprised that in rural areas, local principals didn’t think that some military service academy opportunities were available.
“I’ve been to twenty high schools in the district and try to always ask the top students there if they’re interested in the service,” Mulvaney said. “They should know the value of an academy scholarship. It’s a job for life, if you want it.”
Mulvaney said he felt proud of his committee’s decision and Nguyen’s future.
“I walked out of breakfast thinking that this country is in good hands,” he said. “Meeting these young men and woman affirm your faith in this country.”
Nguyen was impressed by the Colorado Springs air base he’ll call home, saying that when he visited, he didn’t want to come home. When he leaves for Colorado this June, he’ll stay in school until Thanksgiving break.
“I want to be a service to my country,” Nguyen said. “This is how I can do that.”