ST. CHARLES – Christina Koonce, a senior at St. Charles North High School, is following in her father’s footsteps.
Koonce received a four-year scholarship from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps to attend the University of Illinois. The scholarship will cover Koonce’s entire college tuition, and will include $750 a year for books, lab fees, etc. She’ll also receive a modest monthly stipend that will increase each year until she receives $400 a year as a senior.
In return, she’ll train with the NROTC on campus, graduate as a commissioned officer and serve in the Navy for a minimum of five years.
Ironically, the NROTC scholarship is one that Bob Koonce – retired commanding officer of the USS Key West, a Los Angeles class, nuclear fast-attack submarine – turned down in 1986 in favor of an academic scholarship that had no naval service requirements. However, during his junior year at the University of Illinois, the Navy again asked whether he would join, and he said yes. He attended officer candidate school and served 21 years on submarines.
As his daughter was preparing for college, Bob Koonce reminded her that the NROTC scholarship, while very competitive, was available to anyone willing to serve his or her country, write an essay and be evaluated by an officer.
Unfortunately, not a lot of parents and students are aware of the opportunity, Bob Koonce said. “It’s a great way to pay for a great school, have a guaranteed job after graduating and start a career out in quite the adventure traveling around the world,” he said.
Competitive, but worth it
It’s the goal of the U.S. Navy to issue 1,450 NROTC scholarships every year, said MUC Ryan R. Ringnalda, the NROTC coordinator for Navy Recruiting District – Chicago.
But that doesn’t mean that it will.
For the 2017 scholarship, 3,592 applications were received, and only 1,033 were handed out, he said.
While Ringnalda doesn’t know Christina Koonce personally, her good grades and extensive list of extracurriculars likely helped her earn the prestigious scholarship.
The Illinois State Scholar, who received academic high honors, was one of three editors-in-chief of yearbook, the sports editor of the school newspaper, and an IHSA state finalist for journalism in sports writing and yearbook caption editing, placing sixth in state for yearbook caption editing.
The Campton Hills resident bowled her junior and senior years, was a physical education leader (a teacher’s assistant for PE), and tutored through National Honor Society.
Plus, she volunteered at Redeemer Fellowship Church in St. Charles, watching toddlers on Sundays.
“The Navy and other [military] branches are looking for sharp young leaders who are willing to serve their country,” Bob Koonce said.
The NROTC program is different from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., Ringnalda said. Academy cadets are told when to get up, when to sleep, when to eat – and they can’t date.
NROTC students, however, lead somewhat “normal” college lives.
“Christina … is going to be a normal Fighting Illini,” Ringnalda said. “If she wants to go watch a basketball game, she can do that. Those opportunities are there. She only has to wear [a] uniform when prescribed by her unit, not every day.”
That’s exactly what appealed to the senior.
“I knew about the academies and was pretty interested in those … but I like the balance between the Navy and a typical college experience,” she said. “There’s more opportunities for clubs … and you don’t always have to be on campus like the academies. [You have a] little more freedom as a college student.”
She also is looking forward to her summers, because she’ll be assigned to different areas of the Navy – submarines, ships – and potentially travel the world.
“I’d love … to travel around and experience different cultures,” she said. “I like the idea of being stationed in different places.”
The NROTC scholarship allows recipients to choose a major of their choice, but Christina Koonce has chosen engineering to help serve the Navy, she said.
“I might as well do something that’s beneficial to the Navy,” she said. “In the long run, having the experience in the Navy will help me reach [my] goals of the medical field. My plan right now is to study chemical engineering, while getting my prerequisites for medical school.”
Her father thinks it’s a great plan, noting she’s always wanted to become a doctor.
“She’ll only be 26 years when she’s done with [her] entire [Navy] obligation,” Bob Koonce said. “To me, that’s still very young. And the Navy has a medical school. It’s a good option, a decent plan. I think she’s going to get off on solid ground. With today’s pricing of schools, you don’t want to have a ton of student loans.”
All the major universities have an NROTC program, Bob Koonce said. And college students who think they may have missed their opportunity actually can still apply for a scholarship.
“It’s not for everybody, but if you have a little sense of adventure and you want to travel and you [want] to have tuition paid for, this is a pretty good scholarship,” Bob Koonce said. “For the right people who have the academics and jobs and leadership, it could be a good way to start your life.
“I know many young officers who left after their initial obligation, went on to become lawyers, doctors and other professions,” he added. “It’s a good opportunity.”
To learn more about the NROTC scholarship program, contact Ringnalda at 847 688-7100, ext. 127, or firstname.lastname@example.org.