LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For most people, the chance at a free four-year education at one of the nations’ most prestigious schools sounds like a dream come true. But for families in a rural state like Arkansas, places like West Point and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland can seem like a world away.
In 2005, only 35 students from Arkansas applied for the US Naval Academy, a pool that was a quarter of the size it needed to be.
That year, Captain Scott Pursley, a retired Navy veteran, took over as the USNA’s Blue and Gold Officer, a volunteer recruiting role, representing the state of Arkansas. His job was to facilitate qualified applicants around the state, but there simply weren’t enough. The interest was just too low.
“A state our size should be sending seven or eight kids a year to each of the big service academies,” Pursley said. “One year we only sent two. There were a lot of opportunities for young Arkansans to serve our country and it wasn’t happening. “
Pursley considered it his duty to turn things around. He reached out to the Academy’s admissions department, which suggested he try to get the state’s Congressional support.
“When a congressman suggests to a high school counselor that they want to invite some of the best students of the school to go hear about the serve academies, a lot of counselors say ’sure, why not.’ We would not have the numbers we have now if it weren’t for the support of those six folks for our programs.”
Students need congressional nominations as part of the admissions process, so Capt. Pursley began organizing informational meetings, sponsored by members of Congress, where lawmakers and representatives from all five national service academies could petition students and parents. These specialized events resulted in big numbers. Last year, 15 Arkansans were selected to be part of the Naval Academy’s Class of 2019.
“My colleagues at West Point, Air Force Academy, Merchant Marine, and Coast Guard are seeing similar improvements.”
While Capt. Pursley points to congressional involvement for the success, his colleagues point to him.
Kevin Gorman, Merchant Marine Academy representative, who nominated Pursley for the Arkansas Community Service Award, said upwards of triple digits have attended the academies or are in the process of being accepted as a result of his personal work.
Sometimes Pursley’s work has him addressing a high school library full of ROTC students and parents in Little Rock. Sometimes the mission calls for a more personal approach. One year, a student in Mountain Home, Ark. who was living with his grandmother in a mobile home, scored a 36 on his ACT. He was considering attending the University of Arkansas, but his football coaches, both former Marines, suggested the Naval Academy.
“I had go up to Mountain Home to do some missionary work,” Pursley said. “This young man really didn’t understand the possibilities that were ahead.”
Keeping the student’s best interest at heart, the Navy recruiter asked him to consider Ivy League schools as well, trying to help him understand that the world was his oyster. The star student settled on the Naval Academy.
“He graduated in four years, and he’s now a surface warfare officer and doing the Lord’s work out at sea.”
After a decade serving as Arkansas’ Naval Academy Ambassador, the former submarine officer pursued another passion — educating young people directly at eSTEM High School in downtown Little Rock, teaching advanced placement physics, chemistry, engineering, robotics, and calculus.
“Any new teacher will tell you their first year of teaching is really challenging, but I tell people I’m living the dream. It’s terrific.”
And those students who he has, over the years, encouraged to dream big, are his pride.
“We’ve seen these Arkansans go out to all corners of the world doing the things we need them to do for our country. I get a chill just thinking about it. They’re awesome kids.”