By Sondra Barr
Photos courtesy of PVSchools

Shadow Mountain High School (SMHS) is celebrating the achievements of two exceptional students. Ava Vancil and Jasy Justus, both seniors at SMHS, have been accepted into two of the nation’s most prestigious military institutions. Vancil will join the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, while Justus is set to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. Their acceptances mark a significant milestone for the Paradise Valley Unified School District’s (PVSchools) commitment to excellence and leadership development through its JROTC programs.
Inspiration and Aspiration
For Vancil, inspiration struck in an unlikely place: a movie theater, during a showing of “Top Gun Maverick.” The film not only introduced her to the thrills of aerial combat but also sparked an unexpected ambition to pursue a military career—specifically as a fighter pilot. The idea didn’t seize her immediately. “The funny thing was, I didn’t walk out of the theater dreaming about being a fighter pilot; it took a couple of weeks,” Vancil reflects.

“I guess I just connected the dots and couldn’t stop thinking about being a fighter pilot. I tried to convince myself it was a crazy idea and that there was no chance,” she admits. However, the pull of destiny was too strong to ignore. “That lasted for about a week, then I realized, ‘I’m gonna do this! I’m gonna take the plunge.’” Fueled by this determination, Vancil immersed herself in preparation. “The next day, I was running and watching videos on the Naval Academy because that’s where I could become the best fighter pilot,” she says. This aspiration ultimately led her to seek admission at the Naval Academy, a storied institution renowned for developing the nation’s top-tier military leaders.

Justus’s motivation is deeply rooted in a philosophy that resonates on the wrestling mat and beyond: “Don’t talk about it, be about it.” This mantra, imparted by one of her wrestling coaches, has become a cornerstone of her worldview. “This ideology has stuck with me past the 5 p.m. practices and has become ingrained in the very way I think,” Justus explains. “Too many people sit around and wait for somebody else to take care of pressing problems in the world, but who’s that somebody going to be if everyone else is just waiting for a leader?”

She argues that true freedom requires active defense and sacrifice, citing the costs paid by previous generations through “blood, sweat, tears, time, and lives.” In her view, West Point embodies this ethos of active engagement and leadership. “West Point not only provides the opportunity to become a leader but guarantees that all its graduates are leaders,” she says.

Her acceptance into the United States Military Academy was the culmination of years of dedication and a dream held since the first day of high school. “It’s imaginable how much relief I felt when I received my acceptance after months of anticipation,” she recalls. “I’m incredibly grateful to be offered such an amazing opportunity and intend to make the most of it.”

Unique Opportunities at SMHS
Both students have been integral members of the SMHS Space Force JROTC, one of only 10 such programs in the entire country. The program’s distinctive offerings, including an aviation program that can precede a driver’s license with a pilot’s license, have been crucial in their development. This program underscores PVSchools’ innovative approach to education, blending traditional learning with specialized, career-oriented training.

Superintendent of PVSchools Dr. Troy Bales praises the district’s initiatives. “Programs like the Space Force JROTC are instrumental in preparing students like Vancil and Justus not only for college but for impactful careers beyond academia,” he says. “Their stories exemplify the district’s Portrait of a Graduate mission, which aims to foster critical thinking, creativity, resilience, and ethical leadership among students.”

A Model of Resilience and Leadership
Vancil’s journey has not been without challenges. Initially unable to run a half-mile, she recalls, “I broke down in tears and nearly quit, but learned to push past my limits—strength I’ll carry into the academy.” Her academic path was also challenging, particularly with multiple attempts at the SAT. “I’m no math whiz, and the SAT seemed overwhelming,” she admits. Despite the setbacks, Vancil used every resource from practice tests to tutoring, persistently improving her scores, reflecting the resilience PVSchools strives to instill in its students.

Similarly, Justus has balanced a demanding schedule of athletics, rigorous academics, and leadership roles within the JROTC, finding each to be a rewarding endeavor that prepared her for future challenges. “When the end is far from sight, it can be hard to persevere and continue with the same tenacity I started with, but I remind myself of the bigger picture and focus on small increments of progress,” says Justus.

Mentorship and Community Impact
Both Vancil and Justus also highlight the significant role mentorship played in their pre-academy preparation. They credited their JROTC instructors and school mentors with providing not only guidance but also opportunities to explore and realize their potential. This supportive environment is a cornerstone of the district’s approach to education, aiming to produce well-rounded individuals who are prepared to lead ethically and effectively.

As these two young women prepare to transition from high school students to military cadets, their achievements serve as inspiration for their peers and future students alike. PVSchools continues to celebrate and support their journey, confident in the knowledge that Vancil and Justus are not just prepared to meet the challenges of their respective academies but to excel and lead in every endeavor they undertake.

Their admissions into prestigious academies are not just personal victories but also showcase their potential as future leaders in the U.S. military. Vancil advises peers to “push through adversity and never give up,” reflecting her journey of overcoming physical and academic challenges. Justus encourages taking proactive steps toward leadership: “Be about it. Don’t wait for change; be the change.” Together, they set a powerful example for fellow students, proving that with resilience and proactive preparation, achieving big dreams is possible.