BROOKSVILLE — When Cierra Williams began her freshman year at Central High School four years ago, she had no idea how much her life would change.
Her family had moved from Hillsborough to Hernando County so she could participate in Central's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program, which was recently recognized by the Navy League as the best such group in the United States.
But Williams had her doubts.
"At first I didn't want to do it," she said. "I thought, 'It's going to ruin my life.' "
Like many people, Williams had misconceptions about JROTC.
She thought it would be very strict or operate like a mini boot camp in high school. Instead, the program helped her find her voice.
"It turned out to be really good for me," the 18-year-old Williams said. "I was extremely shy. It's made me more outgoing, more social."
The JROTC program is like a large family, Williams said. But within the group of nearly 300 cadets at Central High, everyone is different and students respect those differences, she said.
It all worked just as her mother, Shelley Giard-Talbott, had hoped.
"Cierra was choosing friends that were not making good choices," said Giard-Talbott, referring to her daughter's previous school. "At that time, she was easily influenced. She was trying to find a place to belong."
A few months into her freshman year things began to fall into place.
About one-sixth of the student body at Central High belongs to JROTC. Early on, program leaders saw leadership potential in Williams.
"She's not only an A student, she's also a developing young leader," said Lt. Col. Michael Ralph, who oversees the school's program. "She's worked her way up through the program through numerous leadership positions, including leading a company of cadets this year."
Her mother credits the program and instructors for helping her daughter. She wishes more people knew about it.
"These men care so much about these kids," Giard-Talbott said. "It's really like they have three more fathers."
Over the years, Williams has received numerous awards and honors, including the Meritorious Achievement Award, which she has received for the past three years.
"She's one of the few who have done that," Ralph said. "It's the highest award. We don't give that out as frequently as we give out other awards. In her sophomore year, she started to rise ahead of her peer group. She has continued to work hard."
Williams, who graduates tonight from Central, is headed to the University of Colorado in Boulder on an ROTC scholarship worth up to $180,000. She was one of 10 recipients at Central to receive the scholarship this year.
When she completes her education, Williams will serve in the Navy as an officer.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
Central High School
Graduation ceremonies are scheduled to begin at 7:30 tonight at the school, 14075 Ken Austin Parkway, Brooksville.
Valedictorian: Sarah Bute
David and Ann Bute
College: University of Florida
Field of Study:
Brian and Layali Schuster
College: University of Florida
Field of Study: Pharmacy
Rounding out the Top 10
3. Sarah Lynch
4. Meagan Eng
5. Thomas Koster
6. Stephanie Arnold
7. Kristin Gousse
8. Phylicia Irons
9. Rachel Lynch
10. Jaime Martinez
Central High School Class of 2010
Michael Agresto IV
Thomas Armstrong Jr.
Clifton Davis Jr.
Scott Heffner Jr.
Kenneth Jarrells III
James McCoy Jr.
Mark Moffett Jr.
Edward Pinkney Jr.
Patrick Scott III
Norman Stier III
Mary Yen Vu