May 10, 2022

Teen Scene

By Lori Draz and Cassandra Dalton

Each month our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish it up, so don’t worry, let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is c/Commander and Battalion Executive Officer of the CNHS NJROTC program, 17-year-old senior Cassandra Dalton. Like so many students, Cassandra was faced with making big decisions early in her academic life. She chose the military and has found tremendous personal and academic rewards, including attending either Washington and Lee University or Princeton University on a Navy ROTC scholarship. She learned that committing your full self to your decisions can be transformative. Here is Cassandra’s story. 

Change is a part of life. Some changes are inevitable, like growing older or losing loved ones. Others, like choosing your spouse or even your breakfast menu, are a result of personal choice. We are constantly making choices, some of which have a profound impact on our lives. None of us really knows the long-range effects of any given choice. 

Four years ago, I made a choice that would shape the foundation of the person I am today. As a shy eighth grader from a small Catholic school, the thought of entering a large public high school without knowing a single person terrified me. I knew it would be best if I walked into my first day of Colts Neck High School already part of some sort of community. So, I applied for the two magnet programs hosted at the school: Law and Public Service and Naval Junior ROTC. 

After being accepted into both, I had to decide how I would spend the next four years of my life. On one hand, I had thrived at debate in middle school and was interested in developing my public speaking skills and learning more about our legal system. On the other hand, I was physically scrawny, and my knowledge of the military was limited to my viewings of a few Tom Hanks movies. However, I knew I needed a change. I no longer wanted to be the timid, quiet middle school girl. I wanted to venture outside of my comfort zone and attempt something new. My sister, Maranda, shared her positive experiences in the program, so I decided to accept the challenge of being a cadet. 

The first event I faced was Basic Leadership Training during the summer of my freshman year. This modified boot camp gave me my first taste of military experience. From morning workouts to hours of drilling to academic classes, the weeklong program allowed me and my classmates to transition from plebes to cadets. After graduation, I walked out with numerous connections and even a second-place knockout drill medal. 

During my freshman year, I immediately became involved in various JROTC teams. I would attend daily morning athletic, academic and drill practices. Eventually, my efforts led to me being able to compete on the varsity curl-up and unarmed regulation team. The best part about being a team member was the friendships I made. During overnight trips up and down the East Coast, I shared many laughs and stories with the upperclassmen on the team. We worked together at every practice to make sure our every move was executed simultaneously, constantly striving for perfection. It did not take long for me to feel welcomed as a valued member of the team. 

I was a part of these teams throughout my remaining three years. With each new competition and each new freshman class, I grew to cherish the memories while striving for more successes. Over the years, I have had the honor of commanding both the Unarmed Regulation and Unarmed Exhibition Drill teams as well as being named a Physical Training Captain. I have also held various leadership positions, including Assistant Officer of Operations my junior year and Battalion Executive Officer this year. That one choice I made as a shy eighth grader allowed me to become a confident and decisive leader. 

Additionally, being part of CNHS NJROTC allowed me to meet many active duty personnel and veterans, and these are among my greatest experiences. I have had the honor of personally interacting with World War II veterans, Commanding Officers and enlisted personnel. Some of my fondest high school memories have been listening to the adventurous sea stories of Master Chief Michael Dunkin, Master Chief David Loring, and Major Gregory Penczak. I have participated in color guards for military ceremonies and have even had the opportunity to clean veteran cemeteries, preserving the memories of those heroes. My interactions with the men and women who serve our country to protect the rights of every American have been the most profound and humbling experiences of my life. I owe my deep appreciation for American military personnel again to that eighth grade choice. 

Four years ago, when I was deciding on a path, I never imagined all the opportunities that would open from one click of a button. No one really knows which decision will ultimately lead to success and happiness. That uncertainty is frightening. My advice as 17-year-old girl, who admittedly still has a lot to learn, is to thoughtfully weigh the pros and cons of your decision, then put your full effort once your choice is made. 

When you have to make a choice that may shape the course of your life, do not overstress about the uncontrollable. Instead, make the choice that you think will make you happiest. Then, commit to that decision with all of your effort, and success will be sure to follow. You may be pleasantly surprised at the person you become.