Commencement 2011: Three cadets
grew to adulthood along parallel paths © May 16, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Three Norwich cadets who have traveled a similar path since high school [l to ri] Amber Heckmann, Unna Lee and Victoria Amador, are about to head in different directions.

photo by Jennifer LangilleThree Norwich cadets who have traveled a similar path since high school [l to r] Amber Heckmann, Unna Lee and Victoria Amador, are about to head in different directions.

It’s May 2011, and time for the lives of Victoria Amador, Amber Heckmann and Unna Lee to veer off in different directions.

From the early months of high school in San Antonio, Texas, to the final, chaotic weeks of college, the three young women have been friends, fellow cadets and each others’ greatest cheerleaders. For eight years, they were rarely far enough apart to fall out of step along the similar paths they chose.

But when Norwich University’s 2011 Commencement is over, Amador will start her career with the U.S. Army as a 2nd lieutenant in Military Intelligence; Heckmann will join the forces of young engineers trying to crack an unforgiving job market; and Lee, a member of the Air National Guard since sophomore year, will remain close to campus and work for Norwich and the Guard. She has one semester of school remaining.

Graduate claims his ring during the Order of the Engineer ceremony.

photo by Jennifer LangilleOpen Commencement Weekend slide show

The three young women became friends at the Science and Engineering Academy, a program at John Jay High School for students intent on a career in engineering. They share memories of eating s’mores on the lake and hiking to McDonald’s under fierce midday sun, as well as old friends and the people they used to be. Through their late teens and early 20s, they looked to one another for direction.

“We’re all in the Corps. We all started out as civil engineers. Amador and I split off into Construction Engineering Management. She’s still civil,” said Lee, gesturing to Heckmann.

San Antonio is a city located near five military bases, and this influence was present in everything they knew. Lee and Heckmann grew up in military families, and attended JROTC classes with the understanding their education and future careers were likely to take this path. Heckmann’s stepfather, Tim Santy, was a 1997 Norwich graduate and a civil engineer, which made the transition even more natural.

“Both of them were very ambitious,” recalled Amador, who did not come from a military family and joined the engineering program a year later than the other two. “They both encouraged me to join [JROTC].”

Lee and Heckmann remember Amador as a teenager who was certain she would not pursue a military education, and thus were surprised when she followed their lead and applied to Norwich. Arriving on campus in September 2007, they immersed themselves in college and Corps life, each pursuing their own interests.

“We came to Norwich with a pre-existing friendship, and that was enough,” said Amador. “We were comfortable being in three different companies.”

Victoria Amador in 2007

  Cadets as Rooks:
  Victoria Amador

Living in San Antonio, all agreed, gave them realistic expectations of cadet life.

“I think we were better prepared than a lot of kids who come here,” said Heckmann. “They don't realize what it means to be in the Corps.”

Discipline and training came easily, but college life and new responsibilities weren’t always so forgiving. Each encountered rough patches.

Lee, the first in her family to attend college, called herself “totally unprepared,” for this new life. She started freshman year with poor grades, and had to deal with serious financial needs, causing her to leave school during spring 2008 to attend basic training with the Guard.

Heckmann entered a frustrating period sophomore year. A medical condition vetoed the possibility of a military career, forcing her to rethink future plans. She also hit an academic “sophomore slump,” during a year when Corps responsibilities tend to be light.

Amber Heckmann in 2007.

  Amber Heckmann

“I think it’s what happens to typical college students when they get out of their freshman year and they’re free and just want to go out and have fun,” she said.

Both said they’ve had to work hard ever since to rebuild their grade point averages.

Amador said she loved both the rigors of Rook Year, and the “wild west” of sophomore year when discipline eased. A series of setbacks, including the death of her father and her mother becoming injured, led to emotional and financial crises, however. Figuring out ways to keep up with the cost of college, she said, was the toughest obstacle she faced, and one that hasn’t let up.

“With Commissioning, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Amador.

Unna Lee in 2007.

  Unna Lee

All three found things they loved about Norwich. Lee played rugby and took up the Corps position of Battalion S2, putting her in charge of discipline. Heckmann played rugby and lacrosse and explored service opportunities such as youth mentoring, Alternative Spring Break and an NU Visions trip to Thailand. Amador, a diver, named a trip to the ROTC Ranger Challenge at West Point as her favorite experience.

Lee and Heckmann are still surprised by Amador’s transformation into a soldier, but said she was always the most mature member of the group, and confident about what she wanted to do.

Amador is excited and nervous about the road ahead, but hopes she brings some of the meticulous focus of Heckmann, whom she called a talented engineer with a terrific grasp of technology; and the determination of Lee, the only person Amador believes worked harder than she to get through college.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way they turned out,” she said. “It was an honor to spend as much time with them as I did.”