By Jeff Keeling
Many descriptions fit Science Hill High School senior Stephanie Alu – honor student, immigrant, thespian, volunteer are among them.
Wednesday, with her fellow Army Junior ROTC cadets present and standing at attention, the JROTC Cadet Lieutenant Colonel accepted a new status, one conferred on just a few dozen American high schoolers annually: the Legion of Valor Bronze Cross for Outstanding Achievement in the ROTC Program.
“We are proud of you at the Legion of Valor,” said Col. Thomas Reeves (Ret.) of Erwin. A Legion of Valor member himself, Reeves left a wife and young child to pilot a helicopter in Vietnam at the beginning of a long military career. “Our membership knows about you. I wish you well.”
Reeves, who pinned the medal to Alu’s well-decorated uniform, told those gathered in the foyer of the old SHHS gymnasium this was no ordinary award. Military members of the legion are selected only from among those with either a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, a Navy Cross or an Air Force Cross.
“You are honored to have Stephanie representing you for this,” Col. Reeves said.
The road to such prestige for Alu stretches far beyond ROTC Commander Col. Mike Johnson’s spring 2014 nomination of her for the award. Arriving with her mother Uzcma in Johnson City from Enegu state in Nigeria as a 5-year-old, Alu entered school speaking both Ibo and a heavily accented English.
While Stephanie, Uzcma’s only child, bore the burden of “being different” and worked to fit in, her mother also started over. A lawyer in Nigeria, she changed careers, got her nursing license and now works for Caris, a hospice agency where Stephanie is a key volunteer.
By eighth grade, Stephanie was excelling in school, and when some ROTC cadets coming to the 8th-grade campus trying to recruit, her interest was piqued.
“I got involved partly because a lot of my friends were going to do it, and partly because my mom wanted me to do it,” Alu said. “But when I actually started, I ended up loving it and I just continued.”
Leadership roles quickly followed for Alu, thanks to the influence of Col. Johnson.
“Without even asking whether I wanted to do it or not he would say, ‘Ms. Alu, you’re going to do this,’” she said. “He pushed me into a lot of leadership roles trying to build up my confidence and leadership skills. Now I’m battalion commander, so whatever he did worked.”
Alu leads 180 cadets at Science Hill. She was named to the Appalachian Regional ROTC All-Star Leadership Team, and has led Science Hill’s drill team to numerous honors. Last year, she captained the Academic Bowl squad to a ranking among the top 4 percent of more than 1,700 programs nationwide – its most successful finish in Johnson’s tenure.
She also finds time to participate in Latin Club and Showstoppers, and maintain a 3.9 GPA.
All that convinced Col. Johnson to nominate someone for the first time in his four years overseeing Science Hill’s program.
“She is our number one cadet for a reason. She is the highest performer and she has has superior grades, and she has excelled and overcome in a lot, so that’s why we nominated her.”
Alu, who said she hopes to become a pediatrician or a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist, gained seven hours of college credit this summer during a five-week stint at East Tennessee State University’s Governor’s School, where she took general biology and probability and statistics.
Col. Johnson has been “a rock” to Alu, her mother said Wednesday. “He’s helped her to achieve her goals and be where she needs to be, and today is an evidence of that,” Ms. Alu said. “I am so proud of her.”
Alu said she had practically forgotten she was in the running after a busy summer and start to her senior year.
“Colonel brought me into his office and said, ‘you got the award.’ Then he put this entire thing together and I just – I don’t know – I feel accomplished.”
Col. Johnson said Alu is just that, and helps the cadets around her immensely.
“She provides a first-class role model in terms of personal behavior, how to lead, how to pay attention to detail and how to stay focused,” he said. “How she carries herself around campus is a great example for others to follow.”