FORT LEE, Va. – Leilani Uribe’s high school journey has been anything but normal.
The Army family member began her freshmen year in Vicenza, Italy, and upon her parent’s transition to Fort Lee in 2019, she became a student of Prince George High School located about 15 minutes driving distance from the installation.
Relocation is common among military kids, so that’s not the unusual part. Instead, it is how Uribe tackled a large portion of her schooling during the apex of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It’s the 15-month period when she viewed virtual learning and its resulting void in her personal life as the safest option to protect her loved ones from COVID-19.
“When COVID hit, I was like, ‘Well, what do I do now?’” reflected Uribe. “I had been in school [at PGHS] like three months and hadn’t really met anyone or formed any type of connection.”
As a reminder, most public schools prohibited or restricted in-person learning during the early days of the pandemic. Many adopted video conferencing as an alternative. Uribe spent more than half of her sophomore year and all of her junior year learning from home.
“I still tried to participate in-person as hard as I could and when I could,” she said. “I ran track while I was a virtual student. Also, I’m in JROTC so I would [go to the school to] participate during the PT days with my classmates. So, it wasn’t that I was entirely just sitting around at home.
“A lot of it was my choice,” she said in retrospect. “If I got COVID and gave it to my parents – or something happened to my parents – I could never forgive myself. I wanted to put my family’s health before mine.”
Her father, Chief Warrant Officer 5 José Uribe, said it is not unlike Leilani to sacrifice for others.
“[My wife Lupita and I] love our daughter very much,” said the Quartermaster School-assigned Soldier, “but that was her choice to make. We gave her the option when they said kids could go back to school. It’s her nature [to put others first]. She’s very warm-hearted.”
Teenagers were not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines during most of his daughter’s junior year, pointed out CW5 Uribe. She bided her time until the threat of the virus subsided due to mass vaccination. Feeling it was safe to do so, she returned to in-person learning in September 2021. A sense of appreciation and gratitude was apparent, and she relished all she missed.
“In my senior year, I’ve taken advantage of every single moment I have,” she said. “I’m spending time with my friends, you know. I work (at a restaurant), but I realized this is my last year, and I have to prioritize my happiness.”
Speaking of happiness, Uribe was quite so when a three-year ROTC scholarship was offered earlier this year. On top of that, she received a letter of acceptance from Virginia Tech. Uribe said yes to both. Her JROTC instructor said she doubly deserves it.
“She truly is the best that we have and the best I’ve seen in JROTC,” said retired Col. Jason Pate, the senior Army instructor in his second year at PGHS. “She is an incredible student; she’s an incredible athlete; and she’s an incredible leader.”
None of what Leilani achieved is lost upon CW5 Uribe, especially considering all the sacrifices she made during the pandemic. He is proud of the total package – student, daughter and responsible citizen.
“She’s the apple of my eye, that’s why I call her ‘Apple,’” he said. “Yeah, she’s my No.1. We raised her to be independent. When she was a baby, she went with me to change the oil and tires; that’s what we did because I never wanted her to be dependent upon a man. She makes me and her mom so proud.”
Proud of how his daughter responded over the course of two years with smarts, decisiveness and courage. For Leilani’s part, it was not the happiest of times but a period of positive discovery. For that matter, she does not wish the situation was any different.
“I wouldn’t change it,” she said, “because it did teach me. … I became more independent. During COVID, you either did well because you gained a lot or you lost a lot. I heard some kids’ GPA was 2-something during their junior year. My GPA was the highest it’s ever been, just because I learned how to learn by myself.”
Set for college, Leilani plans to pursue the path of an Army physical therapist. While undecided on whether to serve beyond her five-year ROTC obligation, she said her choice is the means for reciprocation – a way of supporting the institution that has supported her.
“I’ve met so many people who are welcoming,” she said, referring to the warm receptions she has always received as a military community member. “Military service is much more than wearing the uniform; it’s the values. I relate to the Army values, and I want to do what I can for those in uniform who practice those values.”
Leilani is set to graduate June 18 and plans to serve in Va. Tech’s Corps of Cadets. She has not quite grasped the reality she is just days away from earning a diploma.
“I don’t think it has necessarily hit me yet,” said the 17-year-old, “because I’m still in school and living in the moment. Every day is like, ‘Oh, it’s just another day of school.’”