When Riley Foster was an underclassman in high school, she never pictured herself in a military academy.
In fact, she didn't even know attending such a college -- where students get an education and train for active duty at the same time -- was an option.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but the whole 9-11 situation made me feel obligated to get involved," she said, "and so I started thinking about it as a possibility."
Riley, a 2006 graduate of Oakdale High School, is now halfway through her second year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. She's majoring in systems engineering and Arabic, and is looking forward to the five-year stint of active duty the academy requires of all its graduates.
Eventually, she hopes to have a career in military intelligence, perhaps working for the CIA. That's quite a leap for a young woman who didn't even know military academies existed until her sophomore year in high school.
So, what has her academy experience taught her so far? Not to underestimate herself.
"As an example, I had no idea I could run for seven miles," she said. "It sucks, I'm not going to lie, there were times that I thought I was going to die, but I did it."
During high school, Riley took all AP and honors classes and participated in several sports, including soccer, volleyball, basketball, golf and track. She was an active member of Oakdale's leadership class.
She could have gone to college pretty much anywhere. But, after Riley attended a Naval Academy seminar, she knew the military would be a good fit. She took a series of classes at the seminar, and also participated in several physical challenges, winning an "Iron Woman" award.
"That made me realize I can really do this and be good at it," she said.
So when it came to applying to colleges, Riley decided to apply to the four major military academies -- Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy and the Army's West Point. Each application required a nomination by her Congressman.
After being accepted into each academy, Riley soon came to the decision that West Point was where she wanted to go.
"My grandfathers were both in the Army," she said. "But, honestly, the decision for me to go to the academy was completely mine; the worst reason to do something is because your parents want you to."
The United States Military Academy at West Point has a student body of 4,000. Fifteen percent are women. Only 1,200 new cadets are accepted each year.
After Riley graduated high school, she had one month before beginning a mandatory military training session during the summer.
"It was a huge culture shock, being yelled at constantly, I had never done anything like it," Riley said.
During the academic year, Riley is required to take four to five classes per day, ranging from chemistry to literature to survival swimming.
Riley is currently on a systems engineering track, while also majoring in Arabic.
"I didn't know what I wanted to major in, but Arabic is much needed right now," she said. "At first I tried to get out of it ... I heard it was really hard ... but then it came really easily to me."
Through the foreign language department at West Point and the Academic Individual Advanced Development program, Riley will be spending three weeks in Jordan this summer, where she will continue her Arabic studies and travel around the country.
In addition to a rigorous course load and busy schedule, Riley also is a member of West Point's Division I track team -- she throws the javelin.
Though Riley is almost 3,000 miles away from her family in Oakdale, she says she is not homesick.
"It's always nice to come home, but I find other ways to spend free time," she said. This includes an occasional weekend trip to New York City, and spending time with her fellow cadets.
After graduating from West Point, cadets are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army. For the first five years, they are required to be on active duty, and they can be deployed at any moment.
Once their five years are up, they are on reserve duty, where they are still on call, but only if they are really needed. This lasts for three years.
What advice would Riley give to girls considering a military academy?
"If you want to do it, then you definitely can, you have the capability," she said. "Don't underestimate yourself, especially physically, you can do a lot more then you think you can."
Sasha Riddle is a junior at Beyer High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program. To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com.