Stories of Impact

Walkup ’23: “To Be a Superior Military Leader”

Clarabelle Walkup ’23


As a child growing up in San Jose, California, Clarabelle Walkup, a member of the VMI class of 2023, spent holidays listening to her aunt talk about her family’s escape from Vietnam, including time spent in a refugee camp and ultimately being rescued from a boat in the South China Sea.

Walkup didn’t come from a military family, yet with those stories in mind, she found herself drawn to military service as the time to choose a college neared. Ultimately, she decided to enroll at Virginia Military Institute, a small, state-supported military school in the mountains of western Virginia.

Walkup’s cross-continental college choice came after soul-searching and realizing that a commitment to national service would be her driving force. The stories she’d heard as a child had left a lasting impact.

“I started to develop a sense of how important this nation is and the values that we all share as Americans,” she noted. She’d often think of her aunt, once desperate to escape war-torn Vietnam and get to the United States.

“I guess I get my resolve from her,” Walkup stated. “I thought to myself, if this country is worth sacrificing your life to get to, then it’s worth sacrificing your life to fight for and to preserve.”

In just a few weeks, Walkup’s dream of giving back will come true as she commissions into the U.S. Navy. On May 16, she’ll graduate from VMI with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and a minor in modern languages and cultures (Spanish). During her time at the Institute, she’s been command master chief of Naval ROTC and captain of the volleyball team.

“Here at VMI, there’s a particular set of values that people not only seek to achieve — but embody — and I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where the cadets really embody honor.”

Clarabelle Walkup '23

As in the rest of life, success at VMI isn’t realized alone. “You learn quickly at VMI that the most important thing is the person next to you,” said Walkup. “And that comes from a collective resilience through adversity that cannot be achieved anywhere else.”

It’s been a long, hard road—but one she chose carefully, with a desired outcome in mind.

“I came to VMI because I want to be a superior military leader and a servant leader,” said Walkup. “At VMI, there’s a particular set of values that people not only seek to achieve but embody … I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where the cadets really embody honor.”

Over the course of her four years at VMI, Walkup has deepened her understanding of honor—the trait that most attracted her to VMI.

“Honor isn’t just about not cheating on a test or not lying on an official statement,” she noted. “It’s about taking care of yourself and the person next to you. It’s about doing what’s right, even when no one’s looking. And I really found that everyone here wants to achieve true honor and carry that out into their careers after VMI.”

As she prepares to commission and graduate, Walkup is mindful of the fact that the sailors under her command and the other officers around her will get their first impressions of her alma mater from her.

“When I graduate from here, I want people to say, ‘Oh, who’s that Ensign Walkup? Where’s she from? She’s from VMI,’” she stated.

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was posted on

  • Christian Heilman

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