It’s the kind of morning ritual you might expect from a military academy. Students at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark begin each day with arms on shoulders, united as leaders. That mentality is strengthened thanks to a unique partnership that started in 2007 between the school and the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I graduated from here in 2017, so it’s my way of giving back because this community did a lot for me,” said Joseph Carmona, U.S. Naval Academy midshipman 3rd class.
Carmona is one of about a dozen U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen interning at St. Benedict’s for a monthlong leadership training program pushing the high school students to strive for a life beyond the Newark school walls, and providing the Naval Academy students with skills they’ll take into service and careers.
“It’s taught me a lot as far as leadership, and learning, getting to know the kids here. Growing up from Kentucky, it’s different, so it’s cool to see how different walks of life can all come together and achieve a goal,” said Brittany Bongiovanni, midshipman 1st class.
“I think it’s a motivation for our guys. It’s proven that way. We’ll have five this year in the brigade of midshipmen in the Naval Academy, five of our alums,” said St. Benedict’s headmaster Fr. Edwin Leahy.
Midshipmen go to classes with the high schoolers and offer personal stories of triumph and tragedy. On this day, they’re helping with college applications.
“A lot of people think, the freshman mainly, we bring the midshipmen to scare them, but it’s not that reason. Mainly, the midshipmen, I see them as a source of leadership,” said senior Daron Reyes.
“It’s always a benefit to see people just a little older than them who are moving forward with their life successfully in university or with a job. But being able to see the midshipmen, who come not only as university students, but with a specific focus of leadership and defense of the country,” said Leahy.
“They run their program similar to how the naval academy is run. It’s student-based leadership, whereas the Naval Academy is also run by the midshipmen, but also overseen by a bigger group of people,” said Bongiovanni.
All 550 students interact with the midshipmen. Freshman go through a rigorous physical training session during the first week of school, called the freshman overnight. It prepares them for a backpacking project with the Naval Academy students the last week of May — walking the Appalachian Trail from High Point to the Delaware Water Gap.
“We hike for 55 miles in five days. It’s a hard experience, but it’s also a great experience at the same time because you learn how to work with your brothers, because everybody here is our brother,” said Reyes.
“It’s opened my mind up to think better as a person and as a student. Quick story, I came from a school in my town.
I went to public school and I wasn’t the greatest student. But the first week of the overnight changed my mentality like that,” said senior Juan Garcia.
A sign of what can happen: tending to kids’ hearts through education, testing the next fleet of leaders. The midshipmen program ends in a few weeks, but students say the bonds go on for years.