What should a little girl aspire to become when she grows up?
If you’re asking Kristin Schoemaker, anything she wants.
Schoemaker, a junior in nuclear engineering, is preparing to cast off the limitations of an age-old Navy rule prohibiting women from serving on nuclear submarines.
When she graduates from the UI in 2013, she expects to be among the first women to be allowed to serve under the sea – a feat unfathomable as early as 2010 when the Navy announced women would be accepted into its nuclear submarine program.
“I was considering graduate school or industry, and both of those options seemed OK,” she said. “I also could have applied for something on the surface (in the Navy) – the easy ‘woman’s choice.’ But none of those options were exactly what I wanted to do.”
Schoemaker’s future became less murky in the midst of her freshman year, when she discovered the newly made naval opportunity through her involvement with the American Nuclear Society.
That led to a yearlong application process that included rigorous testing, a tour of a nuclear submarine and facilities in Kings Bay, Ga., and a one-on-one interview with a four-star admiral.
“When we toured the submarine training facility, we got to meet the crew,” she said. “There was this common commitment and a camaraderie that really stood out. I wanted to be a part of it.”
The most stressful part of the application process was the admiral’s interview, which included an introduction applicants had to memorize and recite.
“I got to see how other people reacted (after the interview) and it gave me a little confidence to know I wasn’t the only one stuttering,” she said. “When it was over, I couldn’t even remember what the admiral’s office looked like.”
The real boost in confidence came during the testing phase of the application process – when she learned she had already covered most of the material in her UI classes.
“I feel like I’ve got a good background to pursue this,” she said. “There were people (in the testing phase) who just didn’t know what they were doing. I’d been studying since I applied and then they gave us these huge packets of information that had pretty much everything we’ve learned in college; it really wasn’t anything new. That’s one of the big reasons I came to the University of Illinois. I feel really prepared.”
Feeling prepared and confident is not a new concept for Schoemaker, whose family lives in Carpentersville, a Chicago suburb.
“She’s always been very focused,” said her father, David. “She knew exactly what she needed to do to get to the UI. She’s already in a male-dominated field and she seems to be prospering very well.”
A UI graduate and accountant, David said he’s never put pressure on Kristin to succeed – but he has preached the importance of getting a good education.
“She puts more pressure on herself than anyone,” he said. “I think that helps you in situations where other people are putting pressure on you. They key is, don’t put so much pressure on yourself that you lose track of where you’re headed.”
He said he has helped her with mathematical principles since she was in high school, but that Kristin, even with homework, inevitably forges her own path.
“I was pretty good at math, but she was always the one who wanted to work things out herself,” he said.
In the next phase of her life, Kristin’s pressures will not only be perceived – being several hundred feet underwater for weeks at a time is just one of the dangers she’ll face.
But her father is confident she can navigate it all.
“There are risks in life, period,” he said. “As long as she’s doing what she wants, she’ll be a success.”
Kristin is undaunted by cramped quarters, ocean depths or the downside of nuclear-powered energy.
“With everything comes risk,” she said. “I think it (the nuclear energy field) seems less risky when you understand the amount of safety that goes into it. I feel like, by doing this, I’d be helping to make it safer.”
Plus, it’s better than the alternative.
“I didn’t want to end up in my parents’ basement in the suburbs all my life,” she said.
Schoemaker is nonplussed at the attention she has been getting for enrolling in the Navy program. She has been featured in local newspapers and is aware that her actions are pioneering, but she also knows she still has a lot of work to do to complete the process.
“I guess younger girls will know now that they can work on a sub,” she said, “but after a while it won’t be such a big deal anymore. It will just be normal.”
She said the opportunity for women has come about now because there are finally enough applicants to assign to a three-person room aboard the submarine.
“There just weren’t enough women in the Navy to have them fill a living quarters,” she said.
Schoemaker said she realizes her mission is not yet completed. She still has to finish her degree and then enters into four years of various specialized Navy training programs, which includes two tours of duty. She is already on the Navy payroll and must continue to meet ongoing physical and grade-point tracking requirements to officially enter the program. After completing the Navy program she will have already served seven years in the military.
“I know it will take a great amount of self-motivation,” she said. “This gives me something to work for and I don’t want to let anybody down. I just want to make sure I continue to get good grades and stay on track. I don’t want to do anything to mess this up."