This story is part of Newsday’s 2019 Extraordinary Seniors series showcasing 16 high school students from across Long Island with the vision and determination to transform their corners of the universe — and perhaps beyond. Click here to read more.
Xander Shirley has known since he was a young child that he wanted to be in the Navy.
That’s why he signed up for the Navy Junior ROTC the first chance he got — his freshman year at William Floyd High School — so that one day he might serve his country.
In the fall, Shirley will attend SUNY Maritime College on a Presidential NROTC Academy Scholarship, which will pay his expenses and guarantees him a job in the Navy upon graduation.
Shirley’s path wasn’t always so clear, however. When he was 3, his father was killed in a pedestrian-vehicle accident. His family was living in Florida at the time, and his father’s death forced them to relocate to Michigan, where they moved in with Shirley’s grandparents.
When Shirley’s mother remarried in 2006, the family moved to Long Island, settling in Shirley.
“After my dad’s passing, it was difficult transitioning into the start of school,” said Shirley, 18. Later, when Shirley was in eighth grade, his grandfather, an Air Force veteran, also died.
The absence of Shirley’s father influenced his career choice. “I wanted to do something that would make him proud,” Shirley said of his father. “I think he would be proud of what I have accomplished so far, and he would like me to keep going.”
In December, Shirley received the Legion of Valor Bronze Cross, awarded to only 22 NJROTC cadets nationwide. He was named Junior Cadet of the Year in 2016 and 2018 at William Floyd. In addition to his service in JROTC, where he is a platoon commander, Shirley plays cello in the school orchestra and is on the varsity lacrosse team.
At SUNY Maritime, Shirley plans to study electrical engineering. “What interests me about engineering is the idea of me being able to fix things and help other people,” he said.
Shirley said he is excited the Navy could give him the chance to see the world. His interest in travel, he explained, was stoked before eighth grade when he went to Australia for three weeks as a student ambassador for People to People, an international, culturally immersive travel program for students.
“Xander is organized, thoughtful, disciplined and systematic in all that he does,” said Cmdr. Jay Tweed, naval science instructor. “It’s rare when you have a student who has all these traits and participates well in so many activities such as academics, athletics, music and NJROTC.”
Shirley said his family has always supported him through hard times. That was especially true this year as he worked to get into college, unsure if he could keep up his grades for a scholarship.
“They had no doubt that I could do it,” he said.
HIGHER ED: Shirley will attend SUNY Maritime and study electrical engineering.
FRESHMAN YEAR: “I’m pretty excited about the new experience of being away from home and depending on myself, [as well as] meeting new people who have the same academic interests as me.”
IF I RULED THE WORLD “I would make traveling easier for people to do, from cost to transportation, so people have an opportunity to experience the world.”