Student is bound for Annapolis

Chris Thelen/Staff
Strom Thurmond High School senior James Beja turns 18 on June 17, and 10 days later he leaves for the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

AIKEN - They didn't think he could do it.

James Beja's aspirations of attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., were met with skepticism by his classmates.

They thought "I wasn't smart enough or physically fit enough," the Strom Thurmond High School senior said. "I proved those people wrong."

The 17-year-old was recently notified that he's among the 1,500 candidates accepted in the academy's class of 2011.

He leaves 10 days after he turns 18 on June 17. He was nominated by U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, but not every nominee is granted an appointment to Annapolis.

Barrett spokeswoman Colleen Mangone said the congressman nominated nine other students from his district, which stretches through 10 South Carolina counties. She said she doesn't have a final list of those granted appointments to Annapolis.

"It's difficult" to get in, she said. "It's a huge achievement."

According to the Naval Academy's Web site, members of Congress nominate about 4,000 candidates each year, but only about 1,500 are awarded appointments.

Judy Campbell, in the academy's public affairs office, said appointments are still being offered for the upcoming freshman year. She said that last year, 19 people were accepted from South Carolina for the class of 2010.

James' principal, Greg Thompson, described the teen as a "soft-spoken leader" who is dedicated to his studies and helping others.

"I love to brag on my students," Mr. Thompson said. "And he's easy to brag about."

Recommending James as a nominee and then watching him get accepted is "one of the highlights of my career," Mr. Thompson said.

James' tuition, room and board and health care will be paid for by the Navy while he attends the school.

He said he plans to major in history, but all graduates receive a bachelor of science degree. After graduation, he'll be required to serve on active duty for five years.

His schooling will begin with "Plebe Summer," which is seven weeks of initiation that includes exercise beginning at dawn.

"I'm happy about it," he said of his nomination.

James said he has turned down a scholarship from The Citadel to attend the Naval Academy.

"I could help more people if I went there," he said.

He's now looking forward to graduating high school in May and celebrating his 18th birthday at home with his parents and his brother, Robert.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.