Each year, a handful of Navy JROTC students across the country are selected to receive the Joseph C. Gilliam Academic Achievement Award. Spring High School’s Lion Regiment had never had a cadet earn the award, until this year, when Spring High School senior and Navy JROTC Cadet Commander McKenzie Abbott was named a winner of the award for 2021. As the Navy JROTC Area 10 winner, Abbott becomes one of only 13 recipients nationwide to receive the honor this year.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Abbott, who in her role as Cadet Commander serves as the regiment’s executive officer and second-in-command among the student leaders. “I was honestly really shocked, but I’m super excited that I was chosen to be one of the recipients.”
The Gilliam Award recognizes one cadet from each NJROTC area, and is extremely competitive, with senior naval science instructors from around the country able to nominate only one cadet from their program each year. After her selection and nomination from Spring High School’s own Lion Regiment – the largest Navy JROTC unit in Texas and one of the largest in the country – Abbott was then further chosen over 62 other Area 10 Navy JROTC unit nominees based upon her academic achievement and high GPA, overall cadet performance, and an essay she wrote in response to the question, “How do you meet the challenges of leadership during COVID-19 in your unit and personal life?”
The award was established more than 40 years ago to honor outstanding cadets who balance exemplary work in their Navy JROTC activities with excellence in academics. As a recipient of the award, Abbott will receive a certificate and medal from the Thomas and Elliot M. Senn Memorial Fund. Abbott was also honored for her accomplishment during the April meeting of the Spring ISD Board of Trustees, where she received a Point of Pride award on behalf of the board and the district.
“I am thrilled that McKenzie Abbott was selected for the Joseph C. Gilliam Academic Achievement Award and that she’s being honored here tonight,” said the unit’s lead instructor, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Tim Symons, during his presentation to trustees. “She’s an incredibly hard worker who leads by example. She’s a great teammate who consistently seeks to help out others at every opportunity. McKenzie is certainly a source of pride for the NJROTC program writ large, and I can think of no one more deserving for this Spring ISD Point of Pride recognition.”
After graduation this spring, Abbott has a scholarship to attend Regent University in Virginia, with a strong ROTC program that has attracted several Spring ISD graduates in recent years. There, she hopes to specialize in biophysical sciences before commissioning as an officer in the Navy after graduation. Abbott said that having former classmates and fellow cadets already attending the university makes it feel more real, despite the distance from home.
“My mom is super excited,” Abbott said of her college plans. “When I first started the program she was kind of surprised, because I went from doing ballet, and now I’m in JROTC and wanting to join the Navy. She thought that was pretty funny!”
For Abbott and her fellow cadet leaders, balancing the poise of a dancer and the presence of a drill instructor is all in a day’s work. She thanked instructors from the unit, as well as her fellow student leaders, all of whom she said had been working hard to support the needs of cadets in the program throughout the pandemic. Abbott also credited the Navy JROTC program with helping her find her voice, develop her own leadership qualities, and learn how to better support others through her service.
“Honestly, before I joined the program, I could hardly stand up and try to lead, or really stand up for myself, so it’s really made me a more confident person,” Abbott said. “I can take charge when I need to, or lead cadets when they need it, or help them. It’s just really helped me to stand up and do things when I would like to.”