By Kim Walter
Two local military academies will graduate their small, but successful, classes of 2013 at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal and Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock plan to hold commencement exercises to say their final farewell to seniors.
Randolph-Macon Academy Class of 2013
R-MA will award diplomas to 73 graduates representing 13 states and five countries. The class of 2013 had a 100 percent acceptance rate to four-year colleges, which include the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, the Pratt Institute and the United States Air Force and Naval Academies. The class also received more than $8.2 million in scholarships.
The valedictorian and salutatorian are by no means average students. The two young women are active in sports, community service and are both leaders among their fellow cadets.
But, there's something else that stands out about the top students - they're twin sisters.
Both 18, Ashley and Allyson McManus of Middletown will graduate on Saturday. They came to R-MA as seventh graders from Texas, and both were wary about going to a military school.
"Our dad went here, and he, our brother and our grandfather all went to VMI," Ashley said. "So we weren't strangers to the military, but that didn't mean we wanted to be a part of it."
The girls entered R-MA with the misconception that it was "where the bad kids go." However, after a few weeks they both made friends and began to realize that there was more to the academy than drills and uniforms.
The sisters have taken on leadership roles, which have helped them feel more comfortable in front of others. Allyson ranks just above her sister in the cadet corps, while Ashley has the higher-ranking grades.
Looking back on their time at the school, the sisters said they've learned a lot about others and themselves.
"Even though I love this school, and am glad I was able come here, it made me realize that I don't want to continue with the military," Allyson said Thursday morning. "I'm ready to branch out."
She plans to attend the College of William and Mary this fall. While she has not yet decided on a major, Allyson said she might consider work in computer science, even though math is not one her favorite subjects.
Her sister, however, is heading in a different direction.
"I used to joke about going to VMI, like I would never consider it," Ashley said, sitting next to her twin.
But that's just where she's going. She'll attend the Virginia Military Institute on an Air Force scholarship, and said she hopes to one day be an engineer. Ashley said she might pursue a military career once her schooling wraps up.
They both would like to travel eventually, and Allyson said after school she might follow Ashley to wherever she's been stationed. The sisters plan to keep in touch as much as possible during college.
Allyson admitted that she had just written her salutatorian speech the night before it was to be given. Her sister laughed, and said she hadn't written hers yet, but at least had a bullet-point list of the topics she'd like to cover.
"There's just so much to talk about," Ashley said. "How could you leave it until the last minute?"
Allyson said she'll focus on thanking the friends, staff and faculty at R-MA who have supported her and her fellow cadets during their time at the school. Ashley took the idea of support and gave her own twist.
"I want the class of 2013 to remember all the special people here and know that they will always have this support system, no matter where they end up," she said. "They also need to continue supporting others with the skills they learned here."
R-MA President Gen. Henry Hobgood said this time of year is a "happy-sad" one. He's proud of the graduating cadets and their ability to successfully represent the academy, but said it's always tough to watch as "a part of your life sort of walks away."
This year is particularly special for Hobgood. It will be his last commencement as president of the academy. He did say, though, that after serving the school for 16 years, he's leaving it in well-prepared hands.
"It's the right time for R-MA to change leadership, and I know it will remain in its current exceptional condition," he said.
Massanutten Military Academy
In Shenandoah County, MMA will graduate 43 cadets on Saturday morning.
James Batzer, 17, of Maryland, said he struggled upon entering the school in the middle of his sophomore year. The structure took some getting adjusted to, but now he says it was the best thing for him.
"The new environment really helped turn me around," he said. "I'm so focused on my future now ... that's not something I could say before."
He said knowing that graduation is just around the corner is an "awesome" feeling. Batzer will attend The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
As a current company commander, Batzer said he is looking forward to taking on more leadership responsibility. He said he'd like to be leading a platoon as a Marine Corps member within the next 10 years.
"This year especially, we were pushed to develop and learn different leadership styles," he said. "I feel comfortable motivating just about any kind of person now."
Overall, Batzer said he hopes to make his parents proud through the hard work he's put in at the academy.
"Leaving a legacy here is very important," he said. "Every move I make as a senior is something the younger classes see, and I have to remember that. This has all been a big learning experience."
Monica Valcourt, 16, is a junior at the academy. She said upperclassmen like Batzer make her want to leave a legacy as well.
"We've got a new head of school and a new commandant, so things are changing here," she said. "I'm reading for my senior class to take charge next year. I want Woodstock to drive by this campus and be proud of MMA."
Both students said they believe the small class sizes helped them in terms of grades. Batzer began to rapidly excel thanks to the personal mentors he acquired. On the other hand, Valcourt no longer gets bored with classes and is free to work and learn at a faster pace than she would if she was still in public school.
Batzer said he hopes to return to the campus for next year's graduation to congratulate the cadets. Valcourt said she's like to be an active alumnus after leaving, since she always wants to be a part of her alma mater.
"As a graduating senior, I want to see this place succeed," Batzer said. "It worked great for me, and I want to see that carry on for as many kids as possible."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org