High school senior Neha Valluri, 18, is set for the biggest challenge of her life when she reports for training at the United States Military Academy at West Point at 6:30 a.m. on July 2.
The petite Indian American girl was selected out of a field of more than 11,000 applicants, which had been winnowed down to a short list of 500 high schoolers who were then invited to spend a week at the school for a taste of what life will be like as a cadet at one of America’s top military academies.
“I’m so excited,” she told in a recent phone interview from her home in Portland, Ore.
As a freshman, or Plebe, entering the class of 2018, Neha plans to focus on electrical engineering, and will aim for a specialty in Military Intelligence. “That seems to be the perfect fit,” she explained. “It’s not on the front lines!”
The multi-step process of enrolling in West Point started in her junior year of high school. “A cadet came to our school and spoke about daily life there,” Neha recalled. “I was impressed by his sophistication, and how he presented himself. After hearing him talk about military life, it seemed like a good thing to pursue.”
So she started to research the application process online and discovered West Point’s demanding two-week introductory program for high school students, the Summer Leaders Experience. “Her experiences at West Point Summer Leaders Experience have allowed her to discover what she truly wants for herself,” said Neha’s mother, Rajeshwari “Raj” Valluri, a project manager for Intel in Portland.
“Not only is Neha the only person from our family to be in the U.S. Military and [to] attend West Point, she is also one of the few cadets coming from an Indian background from the nation and the only Indian female from Oregon (and also the first) to have been given the opportunity to serve for a greater cause,” Valluri told India-West in an e-mail. “Females are a minority when attending West Point, but it is even rarer to have a female of Indian background joining the Army.”
Until now, Neha has maintained an intense academic and extracurricular schedule at her public high school that has prepared her for this next step. An International Baccalaureate Diploma student for the past two years, Neha has taken every science and engineering course available and has been active in Sunset High School’s Mock Trial, Speech and Debate, and Model United Nations clubs. She also runs fundraising half marathons, donating the proceeds to good causes; and is a member of her school’s National Honor Society and Key Club.
During her six-and-a-half weeks of Cadet Basic Training, Neha will awaken at reveille at 4:45 a.m. and spend the day learning skills such as fundamental drills, chain of command, military lifestyle, proper procedures to become highly alert, military tactics, firearms, and leadership strategies. In New York State’s relentless summer heat, she will also learn to march up to 13 miles wearing 95 pounds of gear, and will finally fall into her bunk at 10 p.m. at the end of every day.
“[Basic Training] gets you accustomed to life at West Point. It’s a tough experience, but it helps you prepare,” said Neha.
And Neha is confident that she will be able to handle the demands of military life. “I’ve always had self-discipline, and I’ve always been one of the more mature kids,” she said.
The child of two Hyderabadi IT professionals whose careers took them around the world, Neha learned resilience when she attended “six or seven” elementary schools as far away as India, California and Oregon. “It was easier to assimilate because of my work ethic,” she explained. “I have always felt determined to do everything right — I’d do it right, or I’d do it all over from the start.”
It was while living in Hyderabad with her parents that she started to develop a direction for her life. “I lived in India for a year, in the fourth grade,” she said. “I saw the differences; I could see the poverty and I could see the corruption. As citizens of the U.S., we take these liberties for granted.”
Coincidentally, Neha will not be the only Indian American woman studying at West Point. The Times of India reported that last July, Sneha Singh of Avon, Conn., joined West Point’s Class of 2017.
As a young woman entering the military, Neha is aware of the news reports of sexual discrimination and sexual assault in the armed services, where the chain of command is sacred and has led to the intimidation of victims. Last month, 20 female U.S. Senators took to Capitol Hill to demand reforms in reporting procedures.
West Point officials have also vowed to improve matters by instituting a Respect Program, which formally trains all cadets in subjects such as ethics and equal opportunity, the prevention of sexual assault and harassment, alcohol- and drug-abuse prevention, and health-awareness topics. The four-year course of instruction is designed to benefit not only the cadets themselves, but also those they lead as they progress in their West Point education. “I’m aware of bullying and sexual harassment. It’s a big problem,” Neha told. On the other hand, she noted, “I wouldn’t put myself in this position if I wasn’t confident that the military wasn’t a good place for me.”
Above all, Neha sees her commitment to this West Point education as a step toward making a lasting contribution to this country, said her mom.
“Having been born in America but from Indian descent, it is difficult for Neha to imagine a life separate from the liberties and securities offered here,” said Valluri.
“Engineering in and of itself is a very male-dominated field in any college, university, or Service Academy. As a result, many females shy away from this field of study,” Valluri added. “Neha realizes that she will be one of the very few women at West Point to pursue a degree in engineering, but she would like to break barriers and serve as a role model to other females who are in the same position. She would like to defy the stereotypes set against her and other women to prove that she is just as capable as any other student.”