Valley Air Force Academy Cadets

Mat-Su Valley Air Force Academy Cadets Chad Speer, Rachel Kennedy and Keane Lucas pose for a photo during Parents Week at the start of their Senior year Sept. 1, 2013. The three attended Mat-Su schools together and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy last week as Second Lieutenants.

WASILLA — Maybe there’s something in that clean Wasilla air.

Either that or it’s just an amazing coincidence that three former high school students from Wasilla — Rachel Kennedy, Keane Lucas and Chad Speer — graduated together last week from the U.S. Air Force Academy, one of the hardest colleges in the country to even get into.

Given the fact that less than 10 percent of all 12,000-plus applicants are even accepted, it’s certainly mathematically unusual to have three cadets from the same general area, much less a town Wasilla’s size.

Lucas and Speer have been friends from seventh-grade, and both attended Colony High School. Speer and Kennedy both attended Cottonwood Creek Elementary. All three are now 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force.

Kennedy said it was wonderful having her fellow Alaskans there at the same time. “It was like having a little piece of home,” she said. Lucas even ended up in the same squadron. “I feel like Keane is like my brother now,” Kennedy added. “Everybody knew who the Alaska kids were.”

The Academy is known for its rigorous academic and physical standards and adherence to strict military discipline. Most students are what you’d call exemplary — applicants grade point average hover around an average of 3.8; the average SAT score is 2040.

Back home in Wasilla this week, all three seemed to still be absorbing the accomplishment. “It’s kind of hard to believe,” Lucas said.

“It’s pretty surreal at this point,” Kennedy said. “Those four years went by so quickly — it feels like just yesterday I was a cadet, getting ready to go.”

Not only did the three “Alaska kids” manage to graduate one of the toughest schools in the nations, they succeeded with flying colors. Kennedy, who graduated second in her class and still found time to serve as captain of the USAFA Falcon Dive Team, is headed to medical school. Lucas is a member of the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition Team, is headed to prestigio Carnegie-Melon University in Pennsylvania. Speer, who became a private pilot at the age of 17 (“I was able to legally fly before I was able to legally drive.”) is also going into cyber security.

“We’re just really happy for all three for their accomplishments,” said Dan Kennedy, Rachel’s father.

The Lucas, Speer and Kennedy families are all active in the Alaska All Academies Association, a support organization for Alaskan appointees of the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, U.S. Military Academy, and the U.S. Naval Academy and their families. Nearly half of the Alaskans accepted to these academies are coming from the Mat-Su Borough School District, Kennedy said.

Rep. Lynn Gattis will be on hand Sunday at a celebration in Eagle River for the graduates to present them with a legislative proclamation honoring them for their hard work.

“How incredible that they all ended up doing this together,” Gattis said Thursday. Gattis has known each of the three since they were children, although they came from different backgrounds, she said. She knew the Keene family from when they both lived in Dillingham; Lucas’ father is a Bush pilot and flew for remote lodges that the Gattises also flew for; and the Kennedy family lived “just around the corner” from Gattis in Wasilla.

“We may be growing,” Gattis said, “but we are still a small town. And that is a unique experience, not just being from Alaska but being from a small town like this.”

Gattis said the three graduates are great role models. “They’ve done great things,” she said. “And it’s important to note that their parents were always very involved, too. They’re the ones you always saw at plays, cutting up apples at school, you know — they were always the parents that were there trying to make it happen for their children.”

Being called role models is a description that makes all three squirm. “We just tried really hard in high school, and I think it paid off in the end,” Speer said.

“I think that’s one of the most important things,” Kennedy said. “It wasn’t easy. I’m honestly not that smart — I just worked really hard.”

“It was very hard,” Lucas said. “It was the hardest experience of my life. But I’m very glad I did it.”

All three offered similar advice to students who are still in middle school and high school: if there’s something you want, go for it.

“It’s not impossible,” Kennedy said. “There are so many avenues, so many resources.”

“Try to leave the most options open for the future that you can,” Speer added. “If you don’t do well in high school, you’re closing options before you even have a chance to pursue them.”

And definitely, breathe deep.

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