Rebecca Esselstein of Washington Twp. is a self-described perfectionist. She states it like an apology or a flaw in her character.
But perfectionism can be a great motivator. The Alter High School graduate has achieved so much in her young life: acceptance into the Air Force Academy, first in class at the Air Force Academy, Rhodes Scholar attending Oxford.
She mentioned several positive influences in her life. First and foremost were her parents, Brian Esselstein, a pediatrician, and her mother, Lisa.
“That’s a given; the way they raised us. They’ve always been incredibly supportive no matter what,” said Rebecca Esselstein, 25, second youngest of five children. “If I was stressed out about something, they would calm me down.”
She had some great things to say about Alter High School, as well. Many of her teachers were wonderful, especially James Peters. He taught math, algebra II, trigonometry and precalculus. An Air Force Academy admissions officer came to interview her.
“The admissions officer said the average GPA at the academy is 2-point something. People who get straight A’s all through high school often get a C average at the academy,” said Rebecca Esselstein. “But Alter prepared me so well for the Academy, especially with writing and the math side. It was a good start.”
It was indeed, as Esselstein finished first in her class at the Academy. In addition to the grueling academic schedule, she had a military job every semester.
“It was definitely more time intensive. In high school I always thought it was crazy if I had to stay up to 11 to do my homework,” said Esselstein. “The Academy completely shattered that illusion. Going to bed at 11 p.m. was early.”
Her favorite military job was flight commander her senior year. The cadet wing is divided up into 40 squadrons, with 100 students in each.
“As flight commander, I was in charge of about a third of my squadron,” said Esselstein. “That was really cool because I got to work with element leaders. It was the perfect balance between organizational leadership and motivational leadership.”
The most positive influence at the Academy was her academic advisor, Robert Brown. He was assigned to her major, astronautical engineering.
“I remember the first time I went to his office. He was saying you need to go to grad school, and then there’s the pilot training base. I said, ‘Would you please slow down?’ He was very enthusiastic. He got me thinking about grad school for the first time.”
November 22, 2014, was a very special day. That’s when she found out she had received a Rhodes Scholarship. The evening before, she met the other eight finalists and the judges at an informal coffee hour.
The next day, they all had an official 20-minute interview. After the first round of interviews, all the finalists had lunch together. A couple of people got called back for a second interview, and then Esselstein got called back for a third interview.
“I hate interviews; I’m usually not very good at them. I think lightning struck twice that day,” remembers Esselstein. “We were all just hanging around, and they came out and announced the winners. It was surreal.”
She’s working on her “DPhil” at Oxford in stellar angular momentum evolution. She enjoys it because of the diverse student population and less structured environment. She also made the varsity rowing team her second year. Her dream is to become an astronaut.
“In five years, hopefully I’m flying for the Air Force. And eventually I want to apply to NASA,” said Esselstein.
And it all started with straight A’s in the third grade.
Contact this contributing writer at PamDillon@woh.rr.com.