WEST POINT, N.Y. -- A path back home was the last thing Class of 2019 Cadet Stephen Gracza expected to find when he arrived at the U.S. Military Academy.
The son of American missionaries living in Budapest, Hungary, Gracza's journey to the academy took him across the Atlantic Ocean, through a pitstop in Texas and finally to the banks of Hudson River.
Gracza was born in Budapest and grew up in Hungary, but even though he had never lived in America, his plan from a young age was to come stateside for school and to serve.
"I have always felt the strong sense and urge to protect and defend people," Gracza said. "Seeing the process of how my parents were able to stay in Hungary, it was through donations and sponsorships from U.S. churches. I wanted to give back to those types of communities and a country that supported that."
The expectation was that his move to America to pursue a degree and a career serving in the Army would take him away from Hungary for good, but his time at West Point has presented him with multiple opportunities to return to the country he called home growing up.
Gracza studied international affairs with a focus on Eastern Europe and Russia while at West Point. His degree and ability to speak fluent Hungarian enabled him to receive an internship with the U.S. Embassy-Budapest. He spent five weeks serving as a liaison from the Defense Attaché Office and the Office of Defense Cooperation to the join-NATO exercise series Saber Guardian. Gracza was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal by the Secretary of Defense for his work at the embassy.
"One of my jobs was making sure order movements and security patrols were completed correctly from the embassy side and speaking to media and helping them understand what the actual exercise was," Gracza said.
Saturday, after he graduates from West Point and is commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Gracza will have another chance to return home to Budapest as a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship - this time for two years instead of five weeks. He will study international security and defense policy at the National University of Public Service in Budapest. Five years after learning to go to school in English for the first time, Gracza will have to readjust to attending school in Hungarian.
"I did not think there would be a route for me to go back to Hungary. It is definitely a pleasant surprise and change of initial plans while I was here," he said.
He will also serve as a fellow at the Hungarian Association of Military Science, a think tank that looks at Hungarian military policy. His assigned branch in the Army is air defense artillery, and the plan for the next two years is for him to look at how the Hungarian army uses air defense and help them to develop policy and strategy for how to incorporate it more fully into their national defense.
Gracza is hoping the experience he gains as a Fulbright Scholar - along with his language skills, time at West Point and work at the embassy - will eventually enable him to work as an advisor to NATO operations or European command during his Army career.
"It is going to be a great opportunity to rekindle some friendships and I am looking forward to new ones through the graduate school experiences and the fellowship," Gracza said. "I am looking forward to going back as an adult to a country and city I was a kid in."
His path from Hungary to West Point and back again started at the age of 12. For Christmas that year, when most kids were receiving video games or clothes, Gracza's grandmother decided to give him a U.S. Military Academy cadet handbook.
The gift would have made more sense if West Point's Long Gray Line had stretched through his Family, but that wasn't the case. Gracza's parents are not grads, they did not serve in the military, and, except for summer trips, Gracza had never even lived in the United States.
"After reading that, I told my parents I was going to go to West Point. They said we are going to wait that out, and I ended up sticking with the idea," Gracza said.
Every decision he made from that point forward was geared toward preparing himself to attend the academy. He served as the team captain of the field hockey team growing up in part because he knew he would learn and be developed through that leadership position and it would help him get into West Point. He focused academically and physically and prepared himself to serve and give back to the country that had given so much to him and his Family.
When the Iron Curtain fell, Gracza's parents answered the call to serve those who had been living under communism. They and their daughter moved to Hungary from Texas where they have remained for the last 28 years serving as missionaries for the Assemblies of God Church. Gracza and his brother were born in Hungary and spent their entire lives growing up in the country.
"They call us third culture kids where it is a little bit of both," Gracza said. "You are not completely American, you're not completely Hungarian, but you've got both of them at the same time."
He and his Family spoke English at home, but much of his day-to-day life, including all of his schooling, was conducted in Hungarian. Some of their customs were melded and he is bilingual, but Gracza said in his mind he has always been American. English was his "mother tongue" and it is the language he thinks and dreams in.
English and their American culture became something intimate for him and his Family as they shared it amongst themselves. The times they came back to America were "invasive," Gracza said, as the language that to his mind was something he and his parents and siblings shared with only each other suddenly became prevalent all around.
Even with the challenges and despite having spent his entire life living in and growing up in Hungary, there was never a doubt for Gracza which country and culture he belonged to, and from the time he received and read through the cadet handbook, America was the country he wanted to return to and serve.
Despite six years of preparation, Gracza's first attempt to get into West Point was unsuccessful. Not to be deterred, he chose to attend a small private school in Texas for a year before reapplying. That year, despite not being in the plans, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Gracza.
It was the first time he had ever attended school in English and he was given the chance to make and work through mistakes that could have set him behind at West Point in a considerably more forgiving environment at the Texas school.
Looking back five years later, Gracza still can't help but laugh at some of the adjustments he had to go through and mistakes he made. Even though he was fluent in English, many of the slang words his peers used were unfamiliar to him. Coming from Hungary where his essays and work was mostly handwritten, the concept of double spacing an essay was foreign to him, and he learned very quickly that simply guessing at the definition wasn't going to serve him well.
"I probably should have looked it up, but I double spaced after every word," Gracza said. "My professor laughed and said he'd let me edit it one more time. I got to make some mistakes and have some culture shock experiences in that one year in a more forgiving environment."
After a year of adjustment and a second application, Gracza was accepted into West Point as a member of the Class of 2019.
Now, five years after moving away, Gracza will be heading back home. His near-term goal is to use his time back in Budapest to build relationships with the Hungarian military and further his understanding of how they operate and their knowledge of how the American armed forces function.
But, there is also the added benefit of reconnecting with old friends and being near his parents, who still live in Budapest, and his sister who works as a missionary in Slovenia.