ANNAPOLIS, JULY 3 -- Growing up poor and parentless in Phoenix, Alwin Wessner knew that he was not a child of privilege. Shuffled among indifferent relatives, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. By 15, he was on his own, supporting himself as a busboy and cook.

In the eyes of the Navy, the 21-year-old Wessner has just what it takes to be an excellent military officer.

So this week, after two years as an enlisted man and a year in a special Navy preparatory school, he was rewarded with a spot in the U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 1994.

"Some of my peers {in the fleet} said I really shouldn't try, but I always seem to be getting breaks in my life and figured I had to show the initiative and apply," said Wessner, who earned a high school equivalency degree before entering the Navy and took college-prep courses aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.

Today is the first day of plebe summer at the academy, the grueling seven-week indoctrination period during which officers and upperclassmen attempt to transform promising young adults into midshipmen.

The new class is one of the most closely watched in some time. Five military and congressional probes are under way into allegations of hazing and academic improprieties at the academy last year.

While most of the 1,232 freshmen with newly shorn locks have high school records befitting one of the most exclusive colleges in the country, about 300 arrived via harder and less conventional paths.

"I would much rather take a good kid like Wessner, who has a strong work ethic and determination and knows what it means to persevere," said Dave Davis, the academy's director of candidate guidance.

"Sometimes, when you take a high school valedictorian, captain of the football team or homecoming king, when they get their first B, they just crumble."

The typical plebe enters Annapolis with high SAT scores (the average this year is more than 1200), a congressional nomination and a re'sume' full of impressive extracurricular activities.

In an attempt to diversify the brigade, however, the academy's admissions office each year reserves spaces for plebes whose academic records may not be up to par but who show leadership potential.

They include midshipmen raised in single-parent families in inner cities and midshipmen who came from rural areas where the physics and calculus were not taught. They also include about 60 recruited athletes and 83 enlisted sailors and Marines.

To give these students a better chance at doing well, the academy sends many of them to the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., a one-year course in military discipline, physical conditioning and basic academics.

The midshipmen are recommended for the prep school by the academy's admissions board, with the government footing the $40,000 cost per student, and are almost guaranteed a slot in Annapolis if they do well there.

The graduation rate from the academy for the prep school's students is slightly higher than for other midshipmen.

But the next four years are not likely to be easy for Wessner. Voted most inspirational student by prep school classmates, he faces a heavy course load and probably will need tutoring, according to Davis.

Today, Rear Adm. Joseph Prueher, the commandant, said recent changes ensure that plebes will not be mistreated.

The midshipmen who will train the plebes have completed a five-hour human relations course.

Two ombudsmen will hear plebes' complaints. And a strict hands-off policy makes touching a plebe grounds for dismissal for upperclassmen.

"Straightening someone's hat or tie or flicking dust off a uniform, that will not be done anymore," Prueher said.