One by one, 840 Air Force Academy cadets graduating in the Class of 2015 crossed the stage Thursday at Falcon Stadium and shook hands with and saluted Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.
They left the stage with broad grins, greeted their classmates with enthusiastic bear hugs, threw their hats into the air as the Thunderbirds flew overhead and became the Air Force's newest second lieutenants.
"You will inherit the mantle of Air Force leadership," James said in her commencement address. "I charge you to lead us into the future. Your resolve will be tested over, and over, and over again. I charge you ... to ensure always that the United States Air Force forever remains as it is today — the very best Air Force on the planet."
James remarked that many things have changed around the world since this class arrived four years ago in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Air Force and other military services are conducting strikes against the Islamic State and trying to reassure allies concerned about Russia's resurgence, James noted, and the military has recently responded to emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the earthquakes in Nepal.
Other nations such as China and Russia are developing better anti-aircraft and cyber warfare capabilities, she said. And tight budgets, frequent deployments, aging equipment and concerns about readiness are challenging the Air Force while the high operations tempos are likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
But it will be up to young airmen such as the newest graduates to help come up with better ways to fight and win, James said.
James noted that this class is one of the most diverse in the academy's history, with 20 percent of cadets being female and 26 percent being minorities. There were eight international graduates, representing Ecuador, Lebanon, Lithuania, Peru, the Republic of Georgia, Senegal, Singapore and South Korea.
But the Air Force needs to do better at improving diversity, James said. That's why she's ordered the Air Force to expand opportunities for women and same-sex couples, and to make it easier for airmen to go back and forth between active duty and the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.
"Our readiness will depend in part on our ability to draw successfully the best talent from every segment of society," James said.
James said that 360 graduates will go directly into pilot training, 89 will go into space or cyberspace fields, and 44 will go into nuclear or missile operations fields. She saluted 89 graduating cadets who plan to continue on to graduate school, including the class's top graduate, Cadet 1st Class Rebecca Esselstein.
Cadet 1st Class Rebecca Esselstein was named the top graduate for the Air Force Academy Class of 2015.
Photo Credit: Air Force
Esselstein, who is from Ohio, was a Rhodes and Marshal scholar. She was a flight commander and regularly made the Dean's Aces List and Superintendent's List. She was one of five graduating cadets honored for her military, academic and athletic excellence.
Esselstein, an astronautical engineering major, conducted research at MIT on radar and infrared signatures, and was an Aspen Institute Socrates Program scholar studying the Supreme Court, the academy said in a May 26 release announcing her selection. And Esselstein worked on an academy satellite, FalconSAT-8, which is scheduled to launch in May 2016. She said she was part of the systems engineering team, and was in charge of getting the satellite's baseline design ready for customers such as the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Earlier in May, Esselstein, a track athlete, also qualified for the 1500-meter finals at the Mountain West Conference Championships, in her last collegiate track competition.
In the release, Esselstein said being honored as the top in her class was "unbelievable."
"I never really expected to be the top graduate," she said. "I just worked really hard and had a lot of people support me along the way. I couldn't have done it without all the help and support from the faculty, my coaches, friends and teammates here. A lot of people helped me get to where I am today."
Esselstein will travel to England and begin her graduate studies at Oxford University in mid-September. In the meantime, she will work in the academy's graduate studies office and help rising seniors apply for postgraduate scholarships.