Colchester High School senior Shannon French holds the flag her father, Senior Master Sgt. Michael French, gifted to the school after it was flown over an overseas mission in Southwest Asia. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Senior Shannon French blinked back tears in the Colchester High School cafeteria last Friday morning, recalling the unassuming email that arrived in her inbox in April.

Her father, Senior Master Sgt. Michael French, was scheduled to return home from a seven-month deployment to Southwest Asia with the Vermont Air National Guard, the message said, in just a few hours. French dashed out of school as soon as she saw the notice.

“My dad is sort of my best friend, so not having him here definitely wasn’t easy,” French said. “[But] while he was gone, we made it work.”

It was often challenging to coordinate communication across continents, she said, and difficult to navigate the college application process and other final high school milestones without her dad around.

Still, it didn’t stop her from deciding to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“For the past few years, I’ve seriously considered going into the military,” French said. “Between my dad and other military members I’ve met … they all have really incredible stories, and they’re all good people. I’d like to be a part of a group like that.”

She’s heading to the nation’s capital this fall, studying biomedical engineering on a pre-medical track at George Washington University through the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps. The program comes with a four-year full scholarship.

French is, in fact, one of five graduating CHS seniors accepted into a military academy or the Army ROTC program, a record number for the district according to guidance team leader Bob Hall.

Seniors Max Brault and Chloe Bullock will attend the University of Vermont Army ROTC, Thomas Meadows the Norwich Army ROTC and Ian Sarrazin the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Plus, an additional three students have declared they will enlist upon graduation, Hall said, heading to the Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force. The combined group is the largest in at least 15 years, he said.

“We’ve actually been able to go through this process together,” French said of the rigorous application requirements. “I’m actually really grateful for the experience.”

Army ROTC applicants must complete typical college admission standards, like penning a compelling essay and securing teacher recommendations, but also sit for an in-person interview and undergo a physical fitness test.

French credits a tight-knit friend group and district staff for creating a supportive environment this year, especially when her dad was deployed. She said principal Heather Barron in particular provided guidance and allowed her to take a break when things felt overwhelming.

School officials also helped facilitate happier moments, French said. Her field hockey coach organized an early “senior game” after she learned her father would be gone before the originally scheduled event.

Senior Master Sgt. French was even able to appear via video conference before a CHS public speaking class, listening to his daughter deliver a tribute speech in his honor.

In turn, he honored the school. French said her dad, who works full time for VTANG, arranged for an American flag dedicated to CHS to fly at an overseas mission.

The framed piece now sits proudly in the high school front office, though the studious French missed the flag’s presentation earlier this year to take an Advanced Placement test, she noted with a laugh.

French said her dad also made it back in time for her tennis season; the duo shares a passion for the sport. She said she bested him for the first time in a match this year, much to his chagrin.

With a college offer secured and the final days of class waning, French has turned her attention past Laker Lane to Washington, D.C., where she’s looking forward to meeting fellow students that share her interests.

Eventually, she hopes to pursue a medical school scholarship and become an Army physician.

More than anything, French is thrilled her dad will be there on graduation day this Saturday, watching her – and several classmates – jump into a new way of life.

“Prior to the deployment, there was a chance that he wouldn’t be back for graduation,” French said. “I’m more than fortunate that he is.”