Exclusive Interview with West Point Valedictorian, Joy Schaeffer
What did you like most about your experience at West Point?
The best part of my West Point experience was the way that it broadened my understanding of the world. This happened through a variety of means. First of all, I had the opportunity to study with students from all over the United States and even from around the world. I learned so much from being immersed in such a diverse environment. My beliefs were challenged and my biases revealed, making me a more critically-minded leader. Second, I was pushed outside my comfort zone. A military academy is not always a cake walk, and there were many points when I had to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, whether that meant carrying a heavy ruck sack and rifle for miles on end, sleeping very little, or not having a shower or hot meal for two weeks due to a training exercise. Learning my own ability to adapt meant that I can trust myself and my teammates in future similarly tough conditions. Finally, I got to see the world. There were many opportunities to travel for various classes or military exchanges – to France, Belgium, Ireland, Ghana, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea. Getting to see the similarities and differences between our culture and theirs (or our military and theirs) was so eye-opening and reminded me of the importance of taking the time to understand one another rather than relying on our own assumptions. Overall, these experiences have taught me important leadership lessons and, I hope, will make me a better leader for my future soldiers.
What makes you feel empowered?
There are many times when I lack confidence. I feel empowered when I am able to learn a new skill or understand something and then use that knowledge to be able to help others. Often times at West Point, there were skills required of me that I had no idea how to do (i.e. shoot a rifle, throw a grenade, tie a certain knot, plan a mission, etc). But I would work with my classmates to learn the skill and try to help others who were also struggling. The same applied with academic courses. Whenever I was able to help others with a new skill or encourage them through a struggle, I felt empowered by my ability to impact others.
Did your experience at West Point make you more of a feminist?
I was a feminist before attending West Point in the sense that I believe that all sexes are equal and deserve equal opportunity to pursue their goals. (I define this because some people define feminism differently, and I believe it’s really important that we never define that as meaning that woman are superior to men, as some have.) However, being at West Point was an opportunity to see many women succeed in pursuing a traditionally male role. In fact, though my class was composed of 20% women, over 40% of the honor grads were women and the six highest ranking graduates were all women. This goes to show that women can do what they set their mind to, even when others may cast doubt due to concepts of what are traditionally male or female roles.
What does “beauty with substance” mean to you?
“Beauty with substance” is such a powerful phrase. It underlines the idea that beauty is not such some veneer of makeup or skin treatment or hair color or even body type that one can put on to become beautiful. Beauty is about having integrity of character and confidence in oneself. It reminds me of a Proverb that says that a woman of noble character, “is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.” For me, beauty with substance is knowing that I am loved by God, was created by his handiwork, and am living for a purpose that can never be taken away. That gives me confidence in myself and inspires me to live a live of integrity and service. And though I still have doubts and insecurities, I can always rely on those promises to remember who God created me, and every woman, to be: a woman of beauty with substance.