By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Tayler Johnston had a moment last week that moved her.
“We were marching in a Memorial Day parade and I saw one of my former classmates in (military) uniform marching,” the daughter of Lori and Lonnie Johnston said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Soon enough, the Jefferson senior will be creating moments like that as she has accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy in Annapolis, Md., where she plans to study polical science.
“I’m proud to be representing my country,” she said. “It’s an honor. It really is.”
There were a number of levels at which the Navy appealed to Johnston as she was deciding on what to do with the next four years.
“It was a lot of different things with the military,” she said. “My father was in the military. My grandpa was in the Navy, even the pledge before games or standing for the national anthem or just standing there in my volleyball uniform. I felt I was representing something bigger than myself.
“I wanted to do that on a bigger level. Representing my country makes me proud.”
That she was making such a monumental decision and following up on it didn’t exactly hit Johnston between the eyes. It took her quite a long time to realize the magnitude of the decision was making.
“I was really excited,” Johnston said. “It first hit me when my application was finished, which was late September or early October. I received my letter of assurance, which basically means you’re good as long as you pass your interviews, in early November.”
Filling out and sending in an application is just the first step in the process. Unlike most schools, there is an interview process. It isn’t simply the dean of a department who asks the questions, either.
“It’s such a long process,” Johnston said. “Most don’t get a letter of assurance unless they’re an athlete and getting recruited. I interviewed throughout January with both the senators and the congressman.
“What happens is the senator and the congressman can each pick a staff of four people and they get to ask questions. It was nerve-wracking. I did the best I could do. I tried to keep smiling and show that I was passionate and excited. What could go wrong if I did my best?”
The longest 30 days of Johnston’s young life followed as she impatiently awaited a response. It was well worth the wait, however.
“Every single day after school, I would check the mail,” Johnston said.
Despite her diligence in checking the mailbox, it was Johnston’s mom who received the letter delivering the news.
“I was at work and my mom called me in tears,” Johnston said. “She sent me a picture of the letter. I was at Applebee’s right up at the front and I was crying at work. I was right in front of the door.”
Johnston, who carries a 4.0 grade-point average, got the equivalent of two thumbs up. Both Senator Rob Portman and Congressman Dave Joyce signed off on the appointment.
“I think it took a month or so for them to get back to me,” Johnston said. “This only really happens in Ohio, but they get together and talk about who they’re going to nominate so they don’t nominate the same person and they get more people from Ohio in there. I ended up getting two of them. That’s rare in Ohio.”
Needless to say, Johnston swelled with pride at the news.
“I’m very proud,” she said. “I’m proud to say I got to this point. I’m proud I get to serve my country. I’m excited I’ve got some great opportunities available to me for my future. Growing up in a small place like Ashtabula County, I’m excited that I’ll get to see more of the world than I ever expected.
“I’m excited to go to the Naval Academy and I get to represent my community and my family. It’s such an honor.”
Heading to the Naval Academy wasn’t something that was at the forefront of Johnston’s mind when the process of choosing a college began. There were certain things she was looking for in a school, but going the military route was not exactly what she was looking at.
“Actually, when I was looking into colleges, academics were always at the forefront,” Johnston said. “I was looking at prestigious places. My best friend (Lindsey Adams, who graduated from Geneva) got an appointment to the Naval Academy in 2012 and she said I should come check out the Naval Academy.
“It’s in Maryland, that’s kind of hard to do. They have a summer seminar. It’s basically a week-long boot camp where you get to visit the academy, work out, check out classes and see what the academy is all about.”
The Academy made quite an impression on Johnston right from the start.
“I automatically knew I wanted to be surrounded by people who were motivated and wanted to be successful,” she said. “I knew I belonged.”
That doesn’t mean Johnston didn’t consider other options, some of which were the more prestigious schools in the country.
“I applied to Georgetown and Case-Western,” she said. “I received my letter of assurance and was accepted to Georgetown before I could apply to Columbia and Rochester. Once that happened, I didn’t even finish the applications.”
Johnston has family members who have served in different branches of the military, but that wasn’t the reason she felt it was her calling.
“My dad was in the Army,” she said. “But that wasn’t a driving force behind going into the military. I’ve always been very involved with community service and other things that were bigger than myself. Being in the military fits that.”
That doesn’t mean the news that their daughter was joining the military sat well with Johnston’s parents, at first. But, as they’ve always done, the Johnston’s supported their daughter’s choice.
“My mom and dad were both very nervous,” Johnston said. “Parents don’t want to hear their kids are going into the military, but they’re very supportive. I’m lucky they’re so supportive.”
The Johnstons saw their daughter was happy with her choice and threw themselves into learning about what she was going to do.
“It came back to academics,” Johnston said. “We talked about how I liked the Naval Academy. They were apprehensive when I wanted to visit. After I visited and we went to some other places, they saw I still wanted to go to the Naval Academy. My mom did the research and now she knows all the little fun facts. They’re very supportive of my decision.”
The challenge of the Naval Academy ultimately appealed to Johnston.
“At the beginning of my high school career, I knew I would work hard,” she said. “I wanted to go to a school that challenge me. I didn’t want to go to the same school everyone else would go to if I was going to work so hard to be at the top of the class.”
Choosing the Naval Academy over Georgetown wasn’t easy, though.
“It was a very tough decision,” Johnston said. “I fell in love with Georgetown. People say when they walk on a college campus they believe they fit in there. The Naval Academy was that for me.
“There are great instructors. There will be opportunities available to me through the military that are more numerous than other places.”
And then there was those challenges Johnston was looking for.
“I’ve always pushed myself,” she said. “My family has pushed me and I’ve pushed myself to be the best I could be. Why not push myself at the best place I could go? Everyone pushes themselves to go to good colleges. I wanted a little bit more than that.”
The call to serve
Johnston has a history of community service and service projects. Those projects ultimately led to her feeling a higher calling, so to speak.
“They asked a lot of questions about my community service,” she said. “I’ve always been very involved. I’ve done a project every month like in the first month I did a clothes drive for Spider Web Consignment Shop. The next month, I did Falcon Care Day, where students went around and helped in the community.”
She was a natural leader in the projects.
“I had a good response from the community,” Johnston said. “There was a lot of help and support from the school. I think it was important with all the budget cuts to take part in all of this. I feel education is something you can’t take away and I wanted to show people what that education meant in the community.”
She’s also popular with her schoolmates at Jefferson. She was voted Jefferson’s homecoming queen in the fall.
The difficult path
It isn’t easy to become a student who gets into a service academy. However, Johnston chose the most difficult path.
“I’ve always worked really hard,” she said. “I put academics at the forefront. I kept a 4.0 and am valedictorian. I’m very proud of that.”
The time she spent on school may have taken away from being an athlete or having a social life, but Johnston doesn’t look at it like she missed out on anything. She been in Model U.N. for four years, earning 16 awards, marching and concert band, where she is a lieutenant and plays trumpet, is a two-year member of the National Honor Society, has been class president, served on the Red Cross blood drive committee, been involved with student council for two years and the Ashtabula County Youth Leadership.
“It took a lot of dedication to study,” she said. “I’ve always taken the hardest classes I can at Jefferson and some different AP classes. I spent a lot of nights studying for the ACT. It took a lot of dedication and a competitive spirit.
“I definitely wouldn’t consider it a sacrifice. I’ve got priorities. I want to achieve my dreams. I have opportunities available to me for my future. I can be proud of who I have become and I can make my family proud of me. I’m just really excited for the opportunities ahead.
“Living in a small town, I was feeling some of those opportunities were far-fetched. Now, I know so many doors are open to my future. This has shown me I can get where I want to go as long as I’m ambitious.”
It wasn’t just in the classroom where Johnston worked or excelled. She spent a good deal of time in athletic endeavors, learning many of the traits that serve her well in the Navy.
“I’m happy with what I’ve been involved athletics-wise,” Johnston said. “I was junior Olympic volleyball for seven years, varsity volleyball for four years, track for two years and softball for two years. It’s not just being in physical shape, but it’s also teamwork and communication and leadership skills. Without that background, I wouldn’t be as well off.”
Athletics also fueled a fire within Johnston.
“I definitely wouldn’t have been the same without sports and competition,” she said. “That’s fuels my passion.”
The doors to Johnston’s future will begin opening soon. In fact, they’ll open much sooner than fall, when most college students head to campus.
“I leave for boot camp July 1,” Johnston said. “I’m definitely nervous about boot camp, but I’m excited to know it will make me a better person. It will be tough physically and mentally, but it will make me a better person.”
After boot camp, Johnston will move onto campus and begin her schooling.
“I will get a Bachelor’s of Science,” she said. “I have four years to earn a degree in political science, then I have five years of active duty, unless I get accepted to graduate school. If I get that opportunity, I definitely want to do that.
“I’ll serve my five years, if I enjoy it, I’ll certainly think about making it a career.”
The Navy will not make Johnston choose her career path until later in her academic training, unlike most colleges, which encourage students to choose a major before ever setting foot on campus.
“I know at the beginning of my freshman year, I’m interested in foreign affairs because of Model U.N. and Dr. (John) Patterson (a former Jefferson teacher and current state congressman),” she said. “At the beginning of my junior year, I’ll start looking at careers.”
Johnston has a good foundation upon which she has relied through the years, including her parents and siblings, Dawn, Lonnie, Hailey and Vaughn.
“My parents and siblings have always been supportive through my academics and sports,” she said. “Though I wasn’t as successful as I’d have hoped, they’ve always been behind me in all the things I’ve attempted to do. During the tough times in academics, they’ve been there. There were moments when they asked what they could do to help more, or they wished there was more they could do to help, but they were always there. I wouldn’t be the person I am or have the opportunities I have, if my parents wouldn’t have been there to support me.”
Johnston feels a great sense of pride over the choice she has made. She also feels it wouldn’t be possible without her roots.
“I’m very, very honored for the opportunity to represent my community, my school,” she said. “I wouldn’t have received such a prestigious honor without growing up in Ashtabula County, in the family situation I have.
“I can honestly say, growing up in Rock Creek, Jefferson, Ashtabula County made me the person I am and I wouldn’t take back a second of it.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.