Second-Generation Naval Officer To Attend UVA Law Through Elite Navy Scholarship Program
In any given year, the U.S. Navy sends just a few good officers on the mission of a lifetime. These elite officers leave their current assignments to enroll as J.D. candidates at an American law school with a full salary and benefits intact and all tuition paid. The University of Virginia School of Law, with its proximity to the Pentagon and the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, welcomes at least one such officer as a new student almost every year.
Before incoming first-year Lt. Christina Onianwa earned her place in the Navy’s Law Education Program, she had never met a single peer who had been accepted into it. Of the few JAGs she had met, very few of them looked like her, she said.
“Being a Surface Warfare Officer is tough,” Onianwa said. “It’s tough being out to sea for months at a time. You eat, sleep, socialize, and work all in the same place, which makes finding work-life balance on a ship very difficult. It is not uncommon for officers to want to transfer to a different community.”
Although Onianwa wanted to eventually become a Navy lawyer, she still strived to be the best SWO that she could be.
“I wanted to set a good example for my junior sailors and show that it is possible to excel where you are while pursuing your dreams,” she said.
In some ways, the path Onianwa took from Potomac Senior High School to Princeton University — and on to naval ships and now UVA Law — started as a dirt road in rural Roberta, Georgia (current population: 1,099).
Her mother, Rhonda, grew up along that road. In town, the road crosses a single stoplight. From rebuilding after the family house burned down to navigating day-to-day life growing up in the segregated South, Rhonda and her family faced constant setbacks. Money was tight, and opportunities to go to college felt out of reach. Rhonda looked to military service as the best path out of Roberta.
Rhonda enlisted at 17 and worked in Pensacola, Florida, at an air traffic control station by day while taking college classes at night. (Onianwa’s parents met at night school.) With the college degree in hand, Rhonda was selected for Officer Candidate School and eventually retired as a lieutenant commander after 22 years of service. She now works as a civilian government employee in naval operations at the Pentagon.
Crediting the Navy for her ability to pursue higher education, live abroad and create financial stability for her family, Rhonda made it a point to educate both of her children about what it takes to become a naval officer right out of college.
“She does not play,” Onianwa said with a chuckle. “She could point out the path, but it was on me to walk it and all that came along with it.”
Onianwa headed to Princeton University on a Navy ROTC scholarship, while her brother, Frank, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Because Princeton’s Naval ROTC program was disbanded during the Vietnam War and not reinstated until 2014, Onianwa was the first Black woman — in fact, the first woman — to join the program. During college, she spent about 15 hours a week on the Rutgers campus in early-morning ROTC classes (which were uncredited) before returning to Princeton for classes for her ecology and evolutionary biology major.
Over her four years as a SWO, Onianwa spent two and a half years on the USS Milius in Japan, a 505-foot destroyer that made news when it chased down a fuel tanker trying to smuggle gas into North Korea in violation of a U.N. embargo. Her second tour was aboard the USS San Diego, an amphibious ship supporting Marines in San Diego.
As the gunnery officer on the Milius, she oversaw all the major and minor caliber guns on board, making sure they were maintained properly and could be deployed at a moment’s notice. On the San Diego, she served as the assistant chief engineer and the auxiliaries officer.
Her tour in Japan challenged and matured her emotionally, she said. She felt alone and isolated when the streets of her home country erupted in turmoil after George Floyd and other Black Americans were killed by police officers.
“You wanted to seek out community, seek out other people who are feeling the same way you’re feeling, but there’s this struggle between being in the uniform and having to be in this neutral space, but then just feeling all these emotions and wanting to speak up and say something,” Onianwa said. “There’s this delicate dance to figure out: How I can make my voice heard without compromising rules and all this that I’m beholden to? That felt cumbersome when all I wanted to do was just unpack.”
Despite the challenges of serving in the Navy and as a SWO, Onianwa’s selection into the service’s scholarship program is clear evidence that she aced it, according to Jennifer Hulvey, the school’s military liaison and assistant dean for financial aid, education and planning. (Each branch has different caps on the number of officers selected for the law program and the amount of tuition they will pay, Hulvey said. In other branches, the program is referred to as the Funded Legal Education Program, or FLEP.)
“It’s an incredible honor to be selected for that program,” Hulvey said. “It’s hugely competitive, and every year we have active-duty military people who apply to the Law School hoping to be in the FLEP program but get back in touch with us to say, ‘Sorry, I wasn’t selected for FLEP.’”
Onianwa plans to study international law and has no qualms about continuing to defend, serve and represent her country as a JAG lawyer and as a Black woman who knows this country isn’t perfect. It goes back to the way her mom raised her.
“I feel like if you really love this country, the Constitution and the ideals that it was truly meant to defend — which is equality — you’re going to critique it and you’re going to point out the path by which you think the country can get better. And it’s up to us, as a collective, to do the hard work to get there.”
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