For most young adults, college is a time to have fun with friends, try new things, stay up late, and take advantage of those day when classes don’t start until 1 pm. For Holly Pickhardt, that schedule looks a little different.
Holly, who is 19 years old, graduated from Randolph High School in June of 2017. But she had her post-graduation plans in motion long before that. She set her sights on attending the United States Air Force Academy, and was willing to do whatever it took to achieve that goal.
The US Air Force Academy’s application process is a lot tougher than most colleges, making admission in itself a huge feat. In January of 2017, Holly completed the necessary application packets that were submitted to the Wisconsin state senators and her congressman. Upon their review, she was brought in to be interviewed. Out of everyone interviewed, only a select few are hand-chosen by the senators and congressmen, and those who are anticipated to become successful military leaders are awarded with a nomination.
In March, Holly received her nomination from Congressman Glenn Grotham. But her journey to admission was far from over. The nomination was then sent to the Academy for review, where only the top applicants are chosen for an appointment to the Academy. On average, they receive over 10,000 applications every year, but only about 1,000 will receive an appointment, or admission into the school.
After Holly’s nomination was sent to the Academy, it became a waiting game. It took about a month for her to receive a letter back, and it was not what she had hoped for. She opened the letter and began reading, “Holly Pickhardt, although you were not accepted into the class of 2021…” and put the letter down. She was devastated.
Shortly after, however, her father, David Pickhardt, picked up the letter to read it for himself. He called Holly back and made her finish reading the letter; it was good news after all! Although she had not made it into the class of 2021, the Academy still saw great potential in Holly and was offering to pay for her attendance at Northwestern Preparatory School in Crestline, California for a semester. This would be an opportunity for her to improve her grades and earn full admission into the Academy.
Northwestern Preparatory School is a prep school for all the United States Academies, and its value is about $12,000 per semester. This means the Academy was so interested in Holly that they were willing to invest an extra $12,000 in her education. Her scholarship, the Falcon Foundation Scholarship, is only offered to about 50 students nationwide annually. It is also known as the “golden ticket,” because it offers recipients a very promising future in the Academy.
In August of 2017, the Pickhardt family flew out to drop Holly off at Northwestern Prep, where she would live for the next three months with 75 classmates. Life there was challenging, with classes and study halls lasting every day from 8:00 am until 10:15 pm. Their curriculum was from textbooks previously used at Harvard, and they endured daily physical training. Because the students were only there for one semester, they were not allowed to leave the state, even on weekends. No visits from parents were allowed, either. This intense schedule paired with homesickness to quickly forge bonds among the students, and Holly says of the experience, “I made some of the best friendships I will ever have in my entire lifetime.”
Now, Holly is entering the Air Force Academy, which is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as a fourth class student, or freshman. She will immediately face a rigorous schedule, extremely high expectations, and strict rules of conduct. Her first six weeks will be spent at Basic Cadet Training, or BCT. It is designed to challenge cadets physically, mentally, and emotionally. The first phase focuses on transitioning from civilian to military life as they learn about their honor code, the heritage of the Air Force, and more, while also facing strenuous exercise. For the second phase, they will march five miles to Jacks Valley, where they will live for the next few weeks as they complete obstacle courses and become familiar with firearms.
After BCT, the real work begins. Holly anticipates being busy seven days a week, with the only breaks in her schedule being for meals each day and church on Sunday. Her school days will average around 14 hours, and it is expected she and her classmates will get around five to seven hours of sleep each night. She must remain at the Academy at all times, with the exception of a few holiday breaks.
When all is said and done, Holly will graduate in four years with a Bachelor of Science degree and be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of the Air Force. She will not have had to pay tuition or room and board – a cost worth over $500,000 – but will be expected to serve a designated number of years of military service after graduation. That works out just fine for Holly, whose goal is to become a pilot in the Air Force.
Holly’s father, David Pickhardt, was a jet engine mechanic at the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee, WI, and served 24 years in the Air Force. Growing up, Holly was always fascinated with her visits to the air base and learning more about the planes. Even on commercial flights, she could always be found in the cockpit asking pilots more about the planes after they had landed. One of David’s friends, Colonel Shannon Yenchesky, encouraged Holly to pursue her passion and consider attending the academy to become a pilot.
With an impressive physical skill set that includes a black belt in mixed martial arts and passion for being outdoors, Holly knew she could rise to the challenge. Even when the road was tough, she never gave up working towards her goal of earning admission into the United States Air Force Academy. And although she’s got a long road ahead of her, she has already proven that she’s got what it takes to succeed.