As a child growing up in Washington Township, Rebecca Esselstein dreamed of flying Air Force planes and rocketing into space.
The Dayton native may be one step closer to both as the top graduating cadet this year at the Air Force Academy.
With a grade-point average of 3.98, she placed first among a graduating class of 840 cadets who also were ranked on athletic and military performance to determine the best of the best at the rigidly competitive and academically rigorous academy.
“It’s really crazy, really humbling,” the 2011 Alter High School graduate said in a telephone interview Tuesday from the campus academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I had a lot of help along the way. It’s really stressful, so I had a lot of late nights, but I think the main thing is having a really great support system.
“I knew it was going to be busy and tough, but it was a lot more than I anticipated.”
After graduation Thursday, Esselstein, 22, will study this fall at the University of Oxford in England, as one of just 32 Americans selected as a Rhodes Scholar. She will pursue a master’s degree in astrophysics after earning a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering at the academy.
The daughter of a pediatrician and a neonatal nurse, Esselstein was the valedictorian at Alter four years ago and led her academy class as the top-ranked cadet for most of her four years there.
“Our biggest anxiety is if she had to deal with not making number one,” said Brian Esselstein, her father. “So we’re very proud of her, but we’re also relieved.”
Esselstein said he and his wife, Lisa, knew their daughter, who earned straight A’s through school, would do well at the academy. But they cautioned her that she would be competing against the cream of the crop. The average high school GPA of the class of cadets was 3.84.
“She has been very self-motivated,” said Brian Esselstein, 59. “It comes from within. She’s always been pushing herself to do the very best in all of her endeavors. … The effort and attitude is the most important thing.”
The cadet said she was told that most of those in her class would graduate with a grade point in the “two (point) something” range “so it was really shocking when I first saw I was up there in my class,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal right now.”
The rigors of the academy take a toll. Of the 1,137 members of the class of 2015 who entered on induction day, 27 percent did not finish. The class has an average cumulative 2.98 GPA. Among the grads, 660 are men (78.6 percent) and 180 are women (21.4 percent). Two hundred twenty-six minority students represent 27 percent of graduates.
Academy life consumed Esselstein’s time in college. When she wasn’t in the classroom, she ran track and cross country and holds the academy mark for the seventh-fastest indoor 800-meter race among female competitors.
She spent much of her off-time studying.
“I still haven’t gone skiing and I’ve lived in Colorado four years,” she said.
She thought she might have to give up on her dream of becoming an Air Force pilot during her junior year, but got a waiver for nearsightedness.
“I was ecstatic,” Esselstein said. “I was a little speechless.”
Calm under pressure
After pilot training, she wants to be an astronaut.
“The magnitude and beauty of (space), it just draws me in,” she said.
The cadet had a scary experience jumping solo out of a Twin Otter plane when a ripcord on her main parachute wasn’t working about 4,500 feet in the air. She deployed the reserve parachute and landed safely.
“It showed me that I could think pretty clearly under stressful situations,” she said.
Col. Martin France, head of the Department of Astronautics at the academy, said the cadet was “in a class by herself” winning both Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
“She’s clearly one of the most focused, professional, and hard-working cadets we’ve seen in the classroom — EVER — but she’s also humble, helpful with her classmates and a joy to have in class,” he said in written remarks.
France, an adviser to the academy’s track and field team, said Esselstein also has “brought the same focus and fire to her competition there, as well as the same team-first attitude.”
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