Monday, January 26, 2015

Letter to my Former Self: ENS Alexa Ciarolla ('14)

In the "Letter to My Former Self" series, USNA graduates lay out the advice they would give themselves as midshipmen based on their experiences as junior officers in the Navy or Marine Corps. This week's letter was written by ENS Alexa Ciarolla, a 2014 graduate and submariner who is currently attending Power School.

I know that as I write this, second semester is well under way at the Naval Academy. Though right now is traditionally considered the “Dark Ages”, it’s an exciting time for firsties especially - community dinners are taking place, Ship Selection night is right around the corner, people are getting fitted for new Marine Corps uniforms and flight suits, and others are selecting the date in which they will start their careers as officers. In short, the finish line is in sight. For those entering the nuclear community, whether surface or subs, I’ll share some of my experiences and what I learned from them, in the hopes that you can start off with that advice.

ENS Alexa Ciarolla (center) at graduation.

First off, a little about myself - I graduated May 23, 2014, with the greatest class to attend USNA. I was a member of 16th company, and was on the Offshore Sailing Team for four years. I also worked as a member of the Honor Staff for two years. I graduated as a History major with a 3.6 CQPR - decent, but not good enough to ever come close to top 100. It was for this reason that I originally early selected nuke SWO in the spring of my 2/C class - the number of slots for female submariners is limited, and my rank wasn’t high enough to make me competitive enough for one of them. However, I went back my firstie fall and made it known if a submarine spot opened up, I was still very much interested in being a submariner. I got lucky, and I went back for a second interview with ADM Richardson to earn my spot as a submariner. I was TAD with the Offshore Sailing team during the summer after graduation, and reported for preschool (which I was required to do as a Humanities major) in October 2014.

Here’s just a few of things I’ve learned since that happened:

1. Learn how to study as early as possible.

Studying at Nuclear Power School is something of a unique experience. Firstly, everything you study, even if it is basic calculus, is considered confidential. This is to train everyone to get used to handling confidential material. However, as a result, you cannot take any of the material out of the building. To study after school ends - which you must do in order to pass - you must come back to the Rickover Center. Second, there are no personal electronic devices allowed in the building. You cannot bring a phone or a iPod into the building; there are even restrictions on the kind of watch you can wear. Basically, if it transmits a signal or can store information, it is not allowed. In a way, this almost a good thing, since you no longer have distractions like music or texts from friends.

Very quickly, you are expected to find a way to study that maximizes your learning, whether that is to go to quiet study and review note cards, or to work out problems with a group. Your first exam will occur a week after you class up, and it basically asks you to memorize fifty pages verbatim.  Although it is a rough transition at first, you’ll find that you can absorb and retain information much faster than you ever thought possible.

It helps to go in with the right mindset. I remember being a midshipman, and putting in the minimum amount of effort required to do fairly well in classes that I thought didn’t matter. However, I started Power School with the idea that I was a History major who originally didn’t earn a submarine spot. So not only was I worried that I would be technically behind the engineers, but I felt like I had to prove that I earned that spot. I started off working hard and putting in extra hours, and so far it’s worked out really well for me. Even if you’re an engineer about to start Power School, never assume that you know something well because you studied it in college. Usually the material you’re expected to know at Power School is extremely specific, and chances are what you were taught at the Academy is not what they want to see on your exam. Everyone has to work hard to get through Power School, regardless of their background. If you start Power School while keeping that in mind, then you’ll be miles ahead of some of your classmates.

2. Retain what you learned at the Academy

As a former midshipman, I know there’s a tendency to blow off classes that are not well liked, or that you believe you will never use in your community. Ironically, as a nuke, you’ll probably use at least a little bit of every core technical course you took as a midshipmen. If you did forget everything you ever learned in plebe chemistry, calculus, physics, or thermodynamics, you’ll probably be fine, since they usually teach everything at Power School assuming that people don’t have a background in it. However, the pace is so fast that it would massively help to remember those courses and understand them prior to starting here. Some of my classmates here went to universities where taking heat transfer or fluid dynamics was not required, even if they were an engineer. Though I was a Group 3 major and only ever took EM300, that helped tremendously in keeping up with the fast pace and I feel more prepared. Those technical courses can come in handy.

3. Take time off from the job.

At Power School, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the material and spend almost every waking hour at the Rickover Center studying, especially when you have two extremely difficult exams in one week. That makes it doubly important to take time off on the weekend, if only for half a day, and do something you love that relaxes you. Mental issues are not uncommon in the nuclear pipeline, and it is important that you find a way to maintain your sanity. For some people, that means volunteering at an animal shelter, or paddle boarding in Charleston’s many rivers and waterways, or just exploring downtown Charleston. Finding a good balance in Nuclear Power School is important, and will be an important habit for the rest of your time in the pipeline.

4. Reach out to officers from other commissioning sources.

Sometimes after leaving USNA, Academy grads can be a bit clique-y, especially if they are going to a training where there are large amounts of other Academy grads. However, officers from other commissioning sources bring something new to the table. They have different perspectives on the fleet from their experiences, and have different strengths than you might have. In fact, at Power School, there are civilians from the Bettis and Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (KAPL) reactors (part of the Bechtel Marine Propulsion) in training alongside you, sharing the same pipeline, so they can go on to design and maintain the Navy reactors. Get to know them. Just like not every Academy grad is an arrogant ring-knocker, not every NROTC grad is overly motivated and not every OCS grad is completely clueless. Look past the stereotypes and you’ll find yourself making good friends.

5. Keep in touch with classmates from other communities.

Just like the children’s song tells us, maintain your old friendships as well. I still talk to friends who went to Flight School in Pensacola, or TBS in Quantico. When you’re sitting there hating the nuclear community because both of your exams that past week were difficult, it can give you some much needed perspective to call up a buddy in Quantico who just got back from a FEX and couldn’t feel his feet the entire week because of the cold. Your friends will help you maintain that much needed balance, and can keep you motivated when all of your Power School classmates are getting cynical and bitter about their jobs.

6. Keep the ultimate goal in mind.

Like I said before, at Power School, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the academics and studying. However, the experience of being an officer on a boat is completely different. Here we’re expected to memorize everything and be able to repeat it back verbatim. Our only responsibility is really to ourselves, and making sure we are prepared to take exams and pass. Your job on the boat is not all the same. In case of a casualty, you’re expected to look up the procedure so that way you’re absolutely sure that you’re not making a mistake. While you are expected to learn a lot in a short amount of time in order to get qualified, you’re also expected to stand whatever watch you’re qualified for and to take care of a division. Leading sailors is the ultimate goal, not being number one in Power School. You still have to be able to interact with your people, and take care of them, and react to crises under pressure. Pure intelligence can only get so far - you still have to lead.

Good luck to the Brigade in your future careers, and especially to the Class of 2015 as you all near Commissioning.


  1. Sounds like the NUCPWRSCOL atmosphere has not changed from when there were two schools (Mare Island and Bainbridge) back in the day. A word of advice to ENS Ciarolla - Be ready for another shock to the system when you get to prototype or MTS. Good luck in your submarine career. After all of the hard work, submarining is really fun (At least it was in my day and seems to be now as well as best as I can tell from a distance).

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