Christian E. Nattiel was 16 years old when his father died. He had struggled through alcohol and drug abuse for years, Nattiel said, but the death still hit the teen hard as he juggled a part-time job, scholastic basketball and his studies.

Nearly six years later, Nattiel will graduate Saturday from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., as a Rhodes Scholar recognized by Army officials for his efforts to help fellow cadets graduate. He is one of nearly 3,000 students to graduate this week from the Pentagon’s service academies, forming a backbone to a new generation of U.S. military officers.

Nattiel attributes his success in part to the growing he had to do after losing his dad. As a child, his mother always told him he could succeed if he worked hard, and he began seriously considering a career as a fighter pilot at 12 years old as he joined the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit organization that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the Air Force.

However, by age 15, he was too tall to fulfill that dream. Nattiel, now 6-foot-7, had reached the Air Force’s 6-foot-5 height limit for fighter pilots and had to consider other options if he wanted to pursue military service. As college approached, he spent a week each visiting West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, and he ultimately chose the Army’s historic campus, some 50 miles north of New York City.

At the time, Nattiel, who is African American, was part of the most diverse class in West Point history. During his sophomore year, he noticed that many of his peers were struggling, and he decided to help. As the president of the Cultural Affairs Seminar, a diversity club, he recruited fellow cadets to mentor others who were struggling. They helped boost the grade-point average for the bottom 20 percent of his class — more than 100 cadets — from 1.35 to 1.92, with many moving above the 2.0 mark needed to ultimately advance to their last year of courses.

“I didn’t really have any sticks or carrots to give out,” he said. “It was just a club, and if you wanted to be involved, you were. So, being able to lead an effort to keep people that committed was difficult. But then, on the flip side, for those who were deficient, it was helping them realize and understand the problem before it necessarily happened. It’s a sensitive issue to tell someone, ‘Hey, you need extra help,’ without telling them that they are less able.”

As Nattiel advanced in his studies, he sought a Marshall Scholarship, which allows American students to pursue an advanced degree in Britain. But a scholarship adviser also suggested that he apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, which is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in the world.

Named after the British businessman and politician John Cecil Rhodes, it funds postgraduate education at the University of Oxford in Britain. Past recipients include former president Bill Clinton and several U.S. senators, but also military and defense officials, such as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair and former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter.

Nattiel was selected, becoming the first African-American Rhodes Scholar in West Point history. Not long after, he presented Vice President Pence with a bust at the Henry O. Flipper Dinner, which is held annually in memory of West Point’s first African American graduate.

Nattiel said he plans to study education and business at Oxford and then return to the Army in two years. From there, he’ll attend infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., and the Army’s Ranger School. He wants to lead troops as a company commander and then get experience as a congressional fellow for the Army on Capitol Hill.

At West Point, the loss of his father helped him keep in perspective all the work he had to do, and to keep calm about it, Nattiel said.

“It was much easier to triage problems as they come, and I was able to stay calm about whatever came my way,” he said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the best situation that happened. My dad, I wish he was here. But through that, I was able to use it as a crutch and turn it into something to kind of guide me forward toward a successful path.”

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