By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — It was almost 18 months ago when Stephen Rodriguez packed up and headed for Annapolis, Md., to enter the U.S. Naval Academy.
Now, after surviving Plebe (freshman) summer and becoming a Youngster (sophomore), Rodriguez has returned home with tales of the Navy and a mission to recruit some more of the Falls’ finest to the military.
“(Freshman year) is definitely a challenge,” Rodriguez said with a big grin. “But it’s all worth it. It’s designed to develop you morally, mentally and physically into the best leader you can be.”
That said, Rodriguez admitted when his summer training in 2011 ended, he couldn’t wait to see his parents for the first time after his swearing-in — and to eat “a big, juicy cheeseburger.”
“You don’t get (cheeseburgers) during Plebe summer,” he said. “(Those who have been through it) always say Plebe summer is never what you expect it to be and it’s different for every person and how you react to it.”
No longer consigned to wearing the white scrub uniform of a first-year military academy student, Rodriguez was sporting what the Navy calls dress blues as he sat in the office at his Falls alma mater the day before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t his first trip back to his former high school but he was preparing to meet with former classmates and new students to give them a look into what life at the Naval Academy is like.
Like everything else in the military, Rodriguez’s visit has its own code name. It’s call Opinfo.
“Basically I go to high schools and do presentations on the academy,” he said. “It’s nice to be back (at Niagara Catholic). It’s not my first time back, but Niagara Catholic helped me get in the academy and (the education I got here) helps me at the academy.”
Rodriguez said one of the reasons he thinks it’s important for him to return to his alma mater and other local schools, like Lewiston-Porter and Niagara Falls High School, is to help students interested in a possible military career to know what opportunities are available to them. When he was a high school junior, Rodriguez said he didn’t know about the Naval Academy.
“I did some (web surfing) and that’s how I found out about it,” he said. “Now, basically, I’m just trying to get the word out about the academy.”
One academy program Rodriguez makes high school students aware of is the “Summer Seminar.” It offers students interested in the Naval Academy to come down to Annapolis and spend a week there, “living the Plebe life.” He also tries to dispel so-called academy myths.
“Every presentation, the girls always ask, ‘Are they gonna cut my hair off?’ “ Rodriguez said.
The answer is, while male Plebes get crew cuts, female Plebes have their hair cut to shoulder length.
As Rodriguez waited to speak to the Niagara Catholic students, the school’s principal, Robert DiFrancesco, said he uses his former student as a role model.
“He knew what he wanted to do and what it would take to get there.” DiFrancesco said. “The key to his success is having a goal and being focused enough to do it. That uniform he is wearing now is going to send a very strong message.”
As Rodriguez spoke to the Niagara Catholic students at their pre-Thanksgiving holiday mass you could see them listening intently to every word he said. But does he think his message will bring another local student to the Naval Academy anytime soon?
“I’m not a recruiter,” Rodriguez said with a smile. “I say if you want to serve your country and get a good education, (the Naval Academy) is the place to be. I would be really proud (to have another local student at the academy). It would be an honor to serve with them and to know I had that effect on them.”