Zachary Yearwood had everything he needed to be appointed to a 4-year term at the United States Military Academy at West Point -- almost.
What the 17-year-old St. Johns County student didn't have was U.S. citizenship for his Barbados-born mother, and that process can take years.
When Lisa Yearwood learned in January that the U.S. Army's academy in New York had an interest in her son as a cadet, she applied for accelerated citizenship with U.S. immigration service officials in Jacksonville. The efforts of their staff and her attorney worked. She took her naturalization oath of allegiance to the U.S. on Thursday with her family at her side after passing her final citizenship test.
"I feel relieved, elated and overwhelmed," Yearwood said, emotion choking her voice.
"I am very proud of him. This is what he's wanted to do," she said. "If I had to choose for him, this would probably not be it. But this is what he's wanted to do."
Her son, wearing his uniform as battalion commander of Nease High School's highly rated NJROTC program, said he was at school when his mother texted the news.
"I froze up and almost broke down in tears because I was so happy," he said. "Ever since I was a freshman and I discovered what West Point was and the people who have gone there and what they went on to do, I have wanted to go there."
Lisa Yearwood filed her first papers to immigrate to the U.S. in 2005. She received permanent residency when she moved here in 2010, but had to wait five years to apply for full citizenship. When the 46-year-old IT security specialist enrolled her son at Nease as a freshman four years ago, she said she knew he would ultimately want to go to West Point.
"I knew he had to be here five years. Then you have no idea how long it takes after the five years before the process actually runs its course," she said. "I knew it was going to be really, really close between December, my five-year mark, and May when he graduated."
Zachary excelled in the high school's NJROTC, named the most outstanding unit for 2015 out of 580 programs nationwide by the U.S. Naval Service Training Command.
Capt. Scott LaRochelle, Nease's senior naval science instructor, knew where the student wanted to go when the military school application process opened in October.
"We were aware there are some issues and hurdles we would have to overcome, but we were optimistic and had faith in the system," LaRochelle said. "He had a lot of folks advocating for him; Rep. Ron DeSantis' office was a big help, and once the service academy saw his record, they knew that they had a winner."
West Point appointees must be a U.S. citizen to apply. In Zachary's case, his mother must be naturalized so he can "derive" that citizenship. But federal officials worked with Yearwood and her attorney to make it happen, immigration spokeswoman Anna Santiago said.
"This is a woman who is trying to become a citizen and she did the process right," Santiago added. "... These are the moments when we show the greatness of this country and what it means to be a U.S. citizen. This is changing her son's life and hers."