‘He was a hero to his church family’
TUCSON, Ariz. — Until a clear, crisp Saturday morning erupted…
Jaci Smith is aiming for a career beyond the surly bonds of earth.
With a degree in astronautical engineering, her first assignment is with the Space and Missiles Systems Center in Los Angeles.
She ran track for the Academy and was named an NCAA Indoor First Team All-American in the 5k this year. She earned similar honors in track and field and cross-country in 2018. She holds the Academy’s records in the 3k, 5k, 10k and 6k cross-country events. In June she competed in Austin, Texas, at the NCAA championships. She hopes to compete in the 2020 Olympic trials.
While at the Academy she made the dean’s list multiple times and was an Athletic Director’s List honoree. In the summer of 2016 she earned her Parachutist Badge (also know as “Jump Wings.”) In the summer of 2018 she interned at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratories, working with NASA’s satellite program, TROPICS.
She credits her faith — and a playlist of a cappella hymns — with sustaining her during her rigorous years at the Academy.
Why did you choose the Air Force Academy?
I didn’t even know the Academy existed until January of my senior year of high school.
I filled out an online questionnaire for their track program before even looking on the admissions website. Come to find out, the Academy requires a Congressional nomination, which was months past due, so I put it out of my mind and focused on other options. However, a week or so later, Coach Cole (the cross country coach) gave me a call and said that the athletic department could help me secure a nomination.
The sudden emergence of USAFA as a potential school was a daunting-but-exciting prospect. It was so different than any other place I had considered.
God presented the Academy at just the right time and blessed me to complete the application process. When it came down to it, I knew the Academy was the best avenue for me to challenge myself as a student, as an athlete and as a person.
How challenging is the Academy?
My first months at the Academy were some of the most difficult of my life. Freshman year is extremely challenging militarily, and getting adjusted to the academic rigor of the Academy was no small task.
Running was really my only outlet, but this was taken away from me when I developed mononucleosis and pneumonia.
For as long as I can remember, my goal had been to compete on the college level, and suddenly I found myself sitting out of my first cross country season.
I struggled to find patience and hope during this time, and it was difficult to believe that God had a purpose in what was happening.
Looking back, I see that this early test of resiliency gave me strength that I needed to overcome many challenges that I have faced since.
Trying times have given me perspective and served to amplify the gratitude I feel for each blessing and success that God hands me.
As a female cadet, did you face any additional challenges?
There are certainly unique challenges to being a female cadet at the Air Force Academy. There seems to be a little more pressure on the women to prove that we belong here, but most of this is pressure that we place on ourselves.
Women who come to the Academy generally aren’t the type to shy away from a challenge. We don’t want to be held to lower standards.
Most of the male cadets at the Academy recognize this and have a lot of respect for the women.
Describe a typical day for you at the Academy.
I usually get up around 6 a.m. to lift weights with the team, get a run in or attend morning formation. I have class from 8:30 to 11:30, then the entire cadet wing marches to lunch. I have one more class after lunch and head to practice around 2 p.m. Practice usually lasts until 6, and then I do rehab for about an hour. I shower and have dinner before I get started on my homework.
I have to be really focused on my school work in the evenings because I like to be in bed by 11 p.m. Time management is one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned.
What type of career do you hope to have in the Air Force?
Space is becoming ever more critical to our military, and I’m really excited to see where the skills I’ve developed in my academic major can be applied within our Air Force or even a future Space Force.
Another major goal of mine is to run competitively for the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program.
But the most important part of being an officer is caring for your people, so whether I’m running or building rockets, I want to apply the leadership lessons I’ve learned at USAFA to be the best leader for those around me.
How do you nurture your spiritual life in such a demanding environment?
I found a chronological study Bible that is engaging and adds structure to my studies.
I love traditional hymns. I have a playlist of nearly 100 a cappella worship songs that I sang growing up, and I find so much peace in listening to these throughout the week.
Most importantly, I have steady friends on and off the cross country team that share in my faith, providing me with constant fellowship and spiritual accountability.
Do you have a favorite scripture?
It’s hard to choose just one. Many scriptures have encouraged me at different points in my life, but these have been especially meaningful during my time at the Academy:
• Matthew 6:25-34(“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.”)
• Hebrews 11:1-3 (“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”)
• Isaiah 43:2 (“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”)
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