Ensign Joshua Haith recently celebrated his graduation from the United States Naval Academy.
Things have looked a lot different for members of the Class of 2020 this year, but that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments.
That’s not lost on Joshua Haith, a 2015 graduate of West Orange High. Haith also is a member of the Class of 2020: He just graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
One of only a handful of West Orange High alumni to graduate from the federal service academy, Haith has endured a long journey to get to where he is today.
He did not travel the typical road to USNA. After graduating high school, he began schooling at the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in 2016 before entering USNA in the fall of 2017.
“We’re on a base, and we’re just basically being taught the basics,” he said of the prep school. “It’s a very small school. It’s maybe 200 of us, if that. … It’s giving us a foundation so we can transition to the Naval Academy.”
After finishing at the prep school, he transitioned to the Naval Academy. Students at the Naval Academy are midshipmen on active duty in the U.S. Navy, and they attend the academy for four years. Upon graduation, they are awarded with bachelor’s degrees and commissions either as ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the U.S. Marines.
“The Naval Academy each year offers its own unique challenges and distinctions,” Haith said. “When you’re a freshman — also known as a plebe — while you’re doing your academics, you’re also doing military stuff. You’re doing all these freshman tasks and discipline to integrate into the Naval Academy family. Sophomore year, you’re called a youngster, and basically, you’re a mentor to the plebes and you’re there to guide them — that’s your first chance at leadership.
“I’m just thankful because it’s not a me thing; it’s a we thing.” — Joshua Haith
“Junior year, you’re basically the person that keeps the plebes in line,” he said. “You’re the one training them, setting up events, running the events and coming up with different things. … Senior year, you’re taking on kind of a delegating approach. … It’s a student-run program. We have officers from the Navy there, but typically, they let us make a lot of decisions.”
But with responsibility comes hard work. Free time was not in Haith’s vocabulary during his time at the academy. Students’ plates are overflowing intentionally to ensure they learn proper time management and prioritization skills. He was in charge of 12 other students and had to ensure they stayed on task and their needs were met. Then, he had to juggle that responsibility with his own — academics, military progression and professional development.
“The continual balance of things at times definitely is stressful, for sure — trying to get the highest grades possible while still taking care of your people,” he said.
Although the responsibility is real, the rewards Haith reaped are plentiful. He earned his bachelor’s degree in quantitative economics, and he has been selected for naval aviation and will train in Pensacola to become a naval pilot — his childhood dream. If everything goes according to plan, he’ll receive his wings of gold in two to three years.
Although COVID-19 put a damper on the commencement festivities — the Naval Academy was forced to cancel its traditional graduation — Haith said he has been blessed with other opportunities to celebrate his accomplishments.
“Honestly, my initial off-the-cuff reaction, I was disappointed,” he said. “In my mind, I had gone through this journey … but it’s different. I finished the Naval Academy at home. … The Naval Academy at first was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to cancel it. There’s no way to bring you all back and it be safe, it’s not the move.’”
But thanks to planning from the academy leadership, Haith said, they were able to bring back graduates in small groups and give them some closure in a private ceremony at Tecumseh Court — the same spot on campus where they began their journey as plebes during a swearing-in ceremony.
Back home in Orange County, Mayor Jerry Demings and county staff hosted a special ceremony for Haith and his Naval Academy roommate, Omoikhoje “Khoje” Pitters — each now having achieved the rank of ensign. Their immediate families were able to be there to share in the special moment.
“I’m just thankful because it’s not a me thing; it’s a we thing,” he said. “No one gets through that place by themselves, and between my support there, here and all over the place …. and God, for sure, I wouldn’t have made it without any of them.”
There also are the lifelong friends he’ll have by his side, near and far.
“This school attracts some of the nation’s best — it’s just a sample of the truly amazing people out there — and getting to interact with, learn from them and grow from them, we develop a bond that no one outside of our institution really understands,” he said. “Through hardships, certain bonds form. … Experiencing all the hardships with these people honestly stands out to me about the Naval Academy.”