Cole Smith destroys a lot of stereotypes. Those who believe the nation's youngsters are growing soft or who fear we aren't grooming future leaders need to meet this 22-year-old.
Smith, son of Warren and Missy Smith, grew up in the Davis Lake subdivision and graduated as student body president at Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School. He is a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, set to serve in the Air Force space and missile program after his May 2012 graduation.
During a short Thanksgiving break from school, Smith spoke to Hickory Grove students about his university and future path, as well as his insights into combining athletic training with the rigorous academic program at the service academy.
As a swimmer, Smith said, he wakes up even earlier than the standard Air Force cadet. That way he can get in a morning practice before breakfast and the start of a full day of classes, drill and mandatory athletic training.
Growing up in northeast Charlotte, Smith swam for the North Mecklenburg AquaDevils and the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club. He now competes for the Falcons in freestyle sprints.
When asked about the work ethic needed to survive the academy, Smith said being a competitive swimmer already instilled a strong work ethic. The extra challenges at the academy, he said, "didn't make me a harder worker, but a smarter worker." He had to learn to prioritize and manage time.
Smith has many tasks to prioritize, both personal quests and those imposed by the academy.
"Writing is my dream job," said Smith, an English major. He is also an avid cineaste and was one of just 50 young filmmakers nationwide selected for the renowned Telluride Film Festival in September, where he had exclusive interview sessions with established filmmakers.
Majoring in English doesn't mean a lighter academic load compared to the technical fields of study more typical at the service academies.
"If you aren't math- or science-oriented, there are many other majors, but there's still a lot of math and science for everyone," Smith said.
Smith is a musician and music lover who plays the piano and participated in the academy's jazz band as an underclassman.
He also volunteers as a disk jockey for KAFA, the academy's radio station.
After graduation and six months to one year of special training, Smith will serve at least five years to complete his commitment to the Air Force. After that, his path is uncertain, although he says that "graduation from the Air Force Academy significantly increases job opportunities."
His first year at the academy was difficult, he said, and he had thoughts of quitting.
"There's lots of people yelling at you," he said. Now, however, he can look back on that experience as an upperclassman who has earned more of the academy's perks in his final year.
During his visit to his old high school, the only people yelling were the many former teachers and staff members who warmly called out to greet him.
Guidance counselor Alan Vogt introduced Smith to the small group of Hickory Grove students wanting to learn more about the academy.
Smith spoke in general of his college life and addressed many questions about admissions requirements and student profiles.
Although his high school class included many students with exceptionally high grades and test scores, he said, many others, like himself, were simply well-rounded and "more average."
The look on Vogt's face and the comments of faculty and staff members indicated Smith's modest self-assessment severely underplayed his many talents.