Brooke Everly wears the ring, and she's only 19.
She graduated from The Citadel on May 5, beating the longest odds.
Two years out of Whale Branch Early College High School in the rural Seabrook community of northern Beaufort County — and only 22 years after women were begrudgingly allowed into the 175-year-old military school's Corps of Cadets — Everly achieved the impossible.
Many a cadet buckles under the physical, social and academic pressures broiling inside that arsenal-like fortress in Charleston.
But Everly graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biology after two years on campus, and now wears the ring of the class of 2018.
Her parents say it saved them $60,000 for their hard-charging, red-headed middle child to earn two years' worth of college credits in high school through the Technical College of the Lowcountry.
But they didn't push her to do it. She pushed herself.
The push involved mentors in high school, where she was commanding officer of the Marine Corps Jr. ROTC. It involved family support.
But it also involved coping with extra verbal and emotional abuse at the military college because she was a "knob" with the freshmen, and at the same time an upperclassman.
It involved summer school, and cramming four years of leadership training and requirements for her major into two years. But she graduated magna cum laude while also working toward a master's degree that should be hanging on her wall at age 20.
It involved times she wanted to quit, but parents and a roommate who assured her she was almost at the finish line.
And it involved her father's battle with cancer.
"We didn't necessarily expect this," said her mother, Deeni Everly, a teacher at Agape Christian Academy in Lobeco.
"We told her she could take her time, but she is intrinsically motivated. We're glad to see her get rewarded. With all the work she has put into school, she is very worthy of that."
What makes the difference
Everly wants to be a surgical oncologist.
She felt that calling in the worst of times.
In her senior year at Whale Branch, her father, Tom, was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer that had spread to the liver.
"It's supposed to be the best time of our life," Deeni Everly said of her daughter's senior year.
But Brooke ended up running the household. And researching the disease. And talking to a surgeon who was blunt and honest about the options and choices. She liked that. She wanted to be that person for others.
"I've never been known to leave any mystery on what I'm thinking," she said.
She would finish her senior year valedictorian of a class of 102, who also played sports and led the ROTC. And she would earn associate degrees in art and science from TCL that did not cost her a dime, not even for books.
Whale Branch specializes in that. In this year's class, 13 seniors have earned at least one associate degree. For the first time, a junior, Allie Rodgers, has earned double associate degrees, graduating from TCL summa cum laude with all A's. And Whale Branch senior Jasiah Ballenger won this year's TCL Young Achiever Award and spoke at the graduation ceremony where she earned two associate degrees and three college certificates.
Instead of taking the high school's English I, for example, these kids take TCL's English 101.
Deeni Everly grew up in Michigan; she felt local schools could push students harder and offer them more. She found that at Whale Branch, which is geared toward college work done on campus rather than the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses others offer.
"They do great things out there, they really do," Deeni Everly said.
"It's more challenging for the student, and it gives them an opportunity to spread their wings before they have to be completely on their own."
School counselor Kimberly Brown said that in her three years at Whale Branch, Everly is the first graduate she's seen finish college in two years. Others do it in three years, she said.
"Brooke picked probably the toughest way to make it happen, but she did it," Brown said. "She sacrificed a lot. She is super-determined and super-motivated. She has family support, but she worked harder and was more dedicated. That's what made the difference — her."
Three types of people
Everly had no intention of going to The Citadel.
"I had heard the horror stories," she said.
But an overnight visit changed her mind. And she could be closer to home while her father recuperated and returned to work as network administrator at Palmetto Electric Cooperative.
Her high school ROTC instructor, retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Dwayne Farr, encouraged her.
He said it was something that could make the Whale Branch program look good, Everly said.
"Whale Branch and the north side of Beaufort County has always had a bad reputation," Everly said. "This will help people realize that kids who come from Whale Branch are going places."
She said the physical and academic demands at The Citadel weren't a problem, but the social aspect was tough.
She would tell incoming knobs to tough through it.
"Some things, you just have to get over it," she said. "And you have to manage your time."
After earning her master's degree next spring, Everly wants to take a year off, perhaps taking a mission trip that involves medicine before going to med school.
"I know that burnout is real," she said.
Last spring, Everly was invited to speak at a banquet for Beaufort County's brightest middle-schoolers.
She tried to teach them what her ROTC mentor always said.
Sgt. Maj. Farr, who Everly invited to her Citadel commencement exercises as well as counselor Brown, always said this:
There are three types of people: ones who do nothing, ones who do something, and ones who sit back confused saying, "Hmm, what's going on?"
Everly's advice to the bright kids was this:
"Continue doing what you're doing now — and more, even."