It’s been a long, hard road, but Belen native Mariah Forde will soon be one of hundreds of cadets graduating from the prestigious United States Air Force Academy on Saturday.
The graduation ceremony — one of very few commencements taking place — was moved up more than a month to Saturday, April 18, as the country continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Forde, a 2015 Belen High School valedictorian and basketball standout, her graduation and commission ceremony will be bitter sweet this weekend. While she’ll be celebrating her achievements with her fellow cadets, no guests, including her family — mother, Catherine Romero; father, Sean Forde; brother, Lucas Forde; and fiance, Danny Gordon — will be allowed to attend the ceremony in person.
Instead, they’ll have to watch the graduation ceremony on the USAFA’s Facebook page and on its YouTube channel, U.S. Air Force Academy.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Forde said of her family not being able to attend her graduation. “My mom has been planning for my graduation for a year. It’s a huge deal. My parents are very upset because we’ve all been looking forward to graduation for a long time.”
President Donald Trump was scheduled to give the commencement speech but, instead, Vice President Mike Pence will be speaking to the cadets in Colorado Springs, Colo., through a video message.
“We’re just going to make the best of it,” Forde said of she and her fellow cadets. “There’s a lot going on and there’s more important things happening in the world right now.”
While 88 USAFA cadets will be the first newly commissioned lieutenants in the United States Space Force, Forde is taking a different route than all of the other 950 graduates. Her education will continue as she is entering dental school at Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz.
Having just celebrated her 22nd birthday on April 15, Forde is grateful for the opportunities she’s had, and remembers her days at Belen High School when she was contemplating her future.
“When I started getting recruited for basketball, I made my first unofficial visit to the Air Force Academy during my sophomore year,” Forde remembers. “I was getting recruited by more schools, and a basketball scholarship was a way to get the best education.”
Even though she was getting recruited by Ivy League schools, she soon realized the U.S. Air Force Academy was the best decision and school for her.
“It was a big commitment for someone who was just 17 years old at the time,” Forde said of choosing the USAFA. “Not only would I have to go for five years, I would end up serving 11 years (of active duty) after school. I was hesitant at first because there were only a few females who were in the academy.”
In her graduating class, 30 percent are females, compared to 25 percent overall in the academy.
Forde started her journey by attending the USAFA’s Preparatory School for a year, which is an opportunity to a carefully selected group of airmen and civilians to provide them the academic, leadership and physical skills that prepares them for success as cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
While there, she completed a three-week basic training, and was able to enhance her math skills in preparation for the courses awaiting her at the USAFA as a pre-dental student.
Once she entered the USAFA in June 2016, she completed another six weeks of basic training before starting her college career. Because of her goal to one day become a dentist, Forde’s course load was more strenuous than other colleges, having to take everything from biochemistry to aeronautic engineering.
“Because I was premed, which is the same as predental, at the academy, I didn’t get to pick a single class — I really didn’t have any electives,” she said. “The four years was very challenging and strict.”
Not only did she and her fellow cadets have to maintain a certain GPA, they were also required to complete certain requirements, such as greeting every person they saw by name, and they had to know what their rank and jobs are.
“It’s changed a lot now,” Forde said of the academy. “It’s getting a lot easier for cadets and they’re trying to change a lot of things.”
During her freshman year, Forde played basketball for the Air Force Falcons. While there, she earned several honors and set a record of 57 three’s as an Air Force freshman and the third most in a season in Division I era and fourth overall, she also was the leading freshman three-point shooter in the Mountain West.
Even as her basketball career was successful during her freshman year, Forde made the decision leave basketball behind to better concentrate on her school work.
“At the end of day, I had to focus on my studies,” she says. “There wasn’t enough time in the day. I was spending six hours a day on the basketball court, and it didn’t leave me enough time for homework. Some people could do it, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed my life doing it.”
After Forde graduates and is commissioned as a second lieutenant, she will be in the Inactive Ready Reserves while attending Midwestern University. She had applied to nine dental schools, was offered an interview at all of them, but chose to only interview with five.
“I got into all five schools I interviewed with on the very first day, but I thought Midwestern University had a good research focus, the campus is beautiful, and that’s where I think I’ll get more clinical experience.”
Forde has always been attracted to the dentistry field, saying she’s had a lot of experiences with it over her lifetime.
“I just love everything about it,” she said. “I had braces when I was younger, and I lost two of my teeth playing basketball. I felt first hand how much dental pain can hurt.
“Now, people look at each other’s smile, and dentistry plays a big part in it. A person’s smile and teeth are important to the way you look. I just want to give people self confidence and a pain-free experience.”
Once she graduates from dental school, Forde will be promoted to the rank of captain and will be an Air Force dentist.
Proud of what she’s been able to achieve while at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Forde said she’s learned a lot about herself and what she’s been able to accomplish.
“I’ve learned I can work hard,” she said. “I’m not the smartest person but I work hardest of almost anyone I know. Hard work can take you anywhere. You don’t have to be the smartest person but you can work the hardest.”
Forde knows what hard work can accomplish, as she was one of five valedictorians at BHS, and one of only a few athletes to come out of Belen to play Division 1 sports.
Her fiancé, Danny Gordon, another 2015 BHS alumnus, also wrestled at the University of Wyoming, and is now a talented and gifted teacher in Thoreau, N.M. They are planning a July 2021 wedding.
As she leaves the U.S. Air Force Academy and prepares for dental school, Forde looks back at her roots and what prepared her for her future.
“My mom and dad always stressed the importance of education,” Forde said. “If you’re willing to work hard, you can succeed. (I advise) every student at Belen High School to take advantage of every opportunity in Belen. If you want a good education, you can get it.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.