Growing up, U.S. Navy Ensign Clarabelle Walkup ’23 found inspiration in the many challenges both her parents had faced. Her mother’s family emigrated from Vietnam during the war years, enduring many struggles before ultimately settling in the United States. Her father, meanwhile, grew up in poverty in Los Angeles, California, before becoming a successful entrepreneur.
“Despite being first-generation military, I definitely come from a family of warfighters,” said Walkup, who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and a minor in modern languages and cultures (Spanish). Today, she’s undergoing training to become a Naval aviator.
A native of San Jose, California, Walkup had no idea she’d one day attend a military college, much less commission into the armed services. But each year around the holidays, as she listened to the family stories told and retold, those stories stirred up a desire to serve. “So, growing up, every Thanksgiving, Christmas, my aunt would tell all my cousins and me the story of her escape from Vietnam, how she was at a refugee camp for many months, and how she basically sacrificed her life, got on a boat and came to the United States,” Walkup recalled.
“And hearing those stories … I started to develop a sense of how important this nation is and the values we all share as Americans,” she stated. “I came to the realization that if this country is worth sacrificing your life to come here for, then it’s worth sacrificing your life to preserve. And that’s where my passion and resolve come from to be a military leader and to be a servant to our country.”
As the end of high school neared, Walkup began to look for schools that would support her desire to give back through military service. “I knew coming out of high school that I wanted to be on the path to becoming a superior military officer and a servant leader,” she commented. “And when I found VMI, I found a place that not only values honor but embodies it.”
Walkup came to VMI on a Naval ROTC scholarship and, unlike many cadets who find the Rat Line to be a rude awakening, Walkup found confirmation in its stress and quite literal strain that she’d made the right choice.
“I really loved the Rat Line because there was no other experience like it,” she stated. “I loved it. I just loved the camaraderie. I love the challenge. I loved the shared struggle.” Sometimes, Walkup admitted, she even got “picked on” as a rat for smiling too much. But she really couldn’t help it; she was getting the preparation she wanted for the life she’d chosen.
“I know my goals,” she said. “I know how to achieve them. And I know I came here to seek what true leadership means … There was never a moment when I wanted to go home. … I remember Matriculation Day. I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to just be present here. I want to immerse myself in the system.’”
“If you want to be a leader and if you want to serve, then this is the place for you.”Clarabelle Walkup ’23
During her cadetship, Walkup served as command master chief of Naval ROTC and was captain of the club volleyball team. She also took advantage of military training opportunities, spending time in summer 2022 with a fighter jet squadron at Naval Air Station Lemoore in Lemoore, California. Her time there confirmed that she’d made the right choice regarding her future career. “I learned and watched how the officers interacted with their sailors in the team environment—I just loved it so much,” she said. “And I see that at VMI, as well.”
Her four years on post have also deepened her understanding of honor—the quality that attracted her to VMI in the first place. “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.”
But Walkup’s time at VMI hasn’t been all about things going easily or well for her. She’s tried some things that didn’t quite work out, and she’s learned some lessons the hard way, with support from members of the VMI community. “In every failure and in every challenge, I’ve learned from it, and I’ve grown,” she stated. “There were members of cadre or staff or upperclassmen that mentored me through that process [saying], ‘Hey, this is how you can be better. This is how you can improve.’ And seeking mentorship is extremely important at VMI.”
Brother rats have stood with her during a family crisis, as well. During her 3rd Class year, her younger brother had heart surgery, and Walkup was unable to go home and be with him due not only to the distance but also COVID-19. “I really relied on my brother rats to lift me up and support me during that time,” she stated.
Walkup has also made time to get to know the women whose cadetships paved the way for her own. Last fall, she participated in the 25th Anniversary of Women at VMI Celebration hosted by the VMI Alumni Agencies. “I thought it was very important that I met with the people who have paved the path for me,” said Walkup.
Meeting women from earlier classes helped Walkup learn just how far the Institute has come; when she was walking around post with alumnae, they commented on the fact that Walkup greeted all her brother rats regardless of gender. “VMI has changed a lot since when the first women were here,” she stated. “And it makes me proud. It makes me proud of the women that came before me, and it makes me proud to be here.”
And Walkup is proud to be from VMI. She’s well aware that as a Naval officer, enlisted personnel and officers unfamiliar with the Institute will get their impressions of VMI 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.
Walkup also has advice for potential cadets: “If you want to be a leader and if you want to serve, then this is the place for you.”
Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content
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Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.