INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER By Adrianna Donat
How the SOMA Community Helped One Young Man Find His Wings
Stanley Finlayson graduated from Columbia High School this past June. But on the day of graduation, instead of joining his classmates to receive his diploma, Finlayson reported for duty as a freshman cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He went on to complete six weeks of Cadet Basic Training before he starts classes in the fall.
The idea of attending a service academy started on a Scouting trip. In April 2015, as a member of Maplewood’s Boy Scout Troop 5, Finlayson ventured up to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.
“I remember seeing cadets there and being impressed with them,” says Finlayson, “wanting to help people, to lead.”
Finlayson, who has since earned the rank of Eagle Scout, also had the opportunity to travel with Troop 5 to Philmont Scout Camp in New Mexico in 2019. During that trip, they toured the Air Force Academy. “Without [my experience in] the Scouts, I wouldn’t have been interested in or accepted at the Air Force,” Finlayson says.
Roger Brauchli, Scoutmaster of Troop 5, has high praise for Cadet Finlayson: “Since he joined when he was 11, he’s always been one of the first to raise his hand for any kind of service project. He’s a great example of someone living the Scout Oath. And certainly, being an Eagle Scout doesn’t hurt when you are applying to a service academy.”
The spirit of the SOMA community likewise fueled Finlayson’s inspiration to apply. In fact, one of the three essays he wrote as part of the rigorous application process focused on his experience here.
“In Maplewood, I was exposed to real world racial issues,” he says. “Our community doesn’t ignore them. We walked out of school and marched to Town Hall [to protest racial inequities]. Being here taught me to take action to make life better for others even if it’s not convenient, even if it’s not easy. Maplewood gave me a sense of integrity.”
Finlayson’s journey to the Air Force Academy would normally have been long and arduous anyway, but the pandemic was a further complicating factor. The process generally begins when a high school junior sends an application, transcript, and résumé to the Academy. If the student is lucky, he or she is invited to a seminar in Colorado Springs the summer before their senior year.
Finlayson got the invitation.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the seminar shut down.
Finlayson spent the next nine months seeking recommendations from a cadre of teachers, doctors, Representative Payne, Senator Booker and Senator Menendez. In order to earn the nominations from Payne and the senators, he had to do a series of interviews. All of these had to be remote.
The process is consuming, in both time and energy. And while this was going on, Finlayson had to maintain his grades, his focus on fencing, marching band, and Scouting, in addition to applying to other colleges. Only around 10 percent of applicants are accepted at the Air Force Academy each year, and he had to make sure he had options if he didn’t receive an appointment.
He also had to think long and hard about what he really wanted in life.
“I had to decide whether I wanted to have the normal college experience, or get up early and make sure my bed was perfectly made each day, for the next decade,” he confesses.
In January, Finlayson got the call he’d been working toward for close to two years. It was Senator Menendez telling him he would receive Menendez’s nomination as a candidate for the Air Force Academy. Suspecting spam because the number was unidentified, Finlayson let it go to voice mail.
In March, when his candidacy was accepted by the Academy, Finlayson spoke to a live person in Menendez’s office. He was told, that “normally the whole office would clap for you, but no one is in the office because of COVID. So this is my mom clapping in the background. Congratulations, Mr. Finlayson!”
Finlayson’s parents, Scott and Peggy, are excited, but wary of the challenges their son faces. “We have a close relationship with Stanley but soon he will be completely on his own, doing one of the hardest things he will ever do in life,” says his mother. “As much as we will miss him, we appreciate this unique opportunity and are thankful for everything he’s learned from the community that helped raise him. He’s ready for the next adventure and we couldn’t be more proud.”
In the fall, Finlayson will pursue a biochemistry degree surrounded by 1,099 freshman classmates. He hopes to become a helicopter pilot or to go into the Special Warfare branch. He will graduate with a job and without debt (though he will have paid in service years), but his earliest opportunity to be a civilian again will be when he is 32.
And that suits him just fine. “I am ready to use my position to improve the lives of others,” says Cadet Finlayson.
Adrianna Donat is a writer who is delighted to be part of this high-flying community.