Name: Sarina Heron

College: College of Science

Major: Economics

Hometown: Stafford, Virginia

Plans after graduation: Nuclear missile operations officer in the U.S. Air Force.  

Favorite Hokie memory: "Storming Worsham field after the UNC game [in 2021] was awesome. I was on the field with my cadet organization, Esprit. The energy was electric. I think that was the loudest Lane Stadium had ever been. I remember the clock running out. I took so many pictures of that day because there were so many smiles and so much laughter. It was the most energy filled stadium I’ve been in.”

Heron didn’t start her time at Virginia Tech as a cadet. Slated to begin classes in fall 2019, she took a deferment to begin instead during spring 2020 due to enrollment numbers at the university. But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and halfway through her first semester, she found herself back at home. Between the tumultuous unknowns of that spring and being a first-year student, Heron didn’t develop successful habits.

“My freshman year was a little bit wild. I realized I was paying for college myself and I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go. My dad is in the military and that edged me in the direction of the corps,” said Heron.

Finding her way

When in-person classes returned in fall 2020, Heron did, too, and she donned a Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets uniform.

“It was a humbling experience. I never liked having people tell me what to do. In the corps, I had multiple people doing just that. I was not the best freshman.” She said she didn’t immediately rise to cadet training, but found in the end, it was the friendships she’d made in the corps that kept her coming back.  

As she started her second year as a cadet, Heron found herself spread too thin. She struggled to balance her academic load, cadet life, and membership in Air Force ROTC and five cadet organizations. Her old habits started to return, and things got worse in the spring semester that year when she didn’t rank high enough in the Air Force program to be assigned a summer training slot, a required element to continue in Air Force ROTC.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions. I was in limbo.”

She left a few of those groups and sought a support network. She found it in family and her closest friends: fellow cadets she met in Valor, a cadet-oriented Christian ministry housed within Cru at Virginia Tech.

“I leaned a lot on them and my parents during that hard time of not getting a training slot. I’m grateful for that organization.”

Staying the course

Faith and U.S. Air Force headquarters came through six weeks later when, through a supplemental board, more summer field training slots were offered. Heron was assigned training for the upcoming summer, which brought her commitment to the Air Force and the Corps of Cadets into focus. She set her sights on becoming a member of the cadet cadre – juniors in the corps responsible for training first-year cadets. She focused on self-discipline to be competitive for the position.

But she questioned whether she could truly commit to the months-long demand of being a cadre member and sought the advice of her former cadre member Eleanor Verburg.

“Whenever I needed a pick-me-up or had a question, I’d call her. She told me to take every opportunity in the corps and learn from it.”

Heron took that advice and interviewed with Lt. Col. Don Russell, 2nd Battalion deputy commandant, for the cadre position, despite feeling like she may not have the perfect pedigree to be chosen for the elite role.

She was wrong. Heron was chosen as cadre for Echo Company and excelled. The experience made her want more. She decided to push her leadership education to the next level and interviewed to become a company commander, which would make her responsible for about 85 cadets. Heron had strong competitors for the position and planned to graduate in the fall. Staying true to her blunt and honest approach to leadership in her command interview, she once again exceeded her own expectations and was selected to be Echo Company’s commanding officer for the fall 2023 semester.

Heron smiles in a portrait shot set against a gray background. She is wearing her dress uniform blouse, white cross belt with shiny brass, and cadet ribbons. She is smiling.
Cadet Sarina Heron. Photo by Katie Mallory for Virginia Tech.

She is almost done serving in that role, having been responsible for the training, discipline, and overall performance of her cadet company for the last 4 1/2 months.

“Being a commander has had its ups and downs. It’s great seeing the company succeed, but I can’t take credit for that. We’ve had a few failures, too, but I’d rather fail here and learn from it than fail on active duty in the military,” said Heron.

“In peer leadership, holding people accountable was the hardest part and I knew that going in. But the highlight is seeing a plan for your company’s success come to fruition. It’s rewarding to see the company grow and watching individual cadets in the company grown in their different ways.”

A new chance to lead

She will soon leave cadet life behind as she graduates from Virginia Tech and commissions  as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Her first assignment: Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, where she will train to be a nuclear missile operations officer.  

Those who have watched her leadership skills develop over her four years in the corps know she will succeed there, too.  

“Sarina will be the kind of Air Force second lieutenant that commanders dream of. She’s authentic and humble, yet a real go-getter. That smile every morning lights up everyone’s day. People are drawn to follow her because of who she is and what she represents,” said Russell.

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