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Engineering a Naval Career

Competitive Swimmer Jo Rodzinka Dives Into Career as Navy Nuclear Sub Officer

Jo Rodzinka grew up submerged.

Unlike many of her peers in Dayton, Ohio, she didn’t hurl herself into swimming pools as a child because she wanted to be a mermaid.

She was competitive.

“I started competing in swim meets as a kid and swam every day all the way through high school,” said Rodzinka, a junior mechanical engineering major and third year midshipman with University of Idaho’s NROTC program. “My friends always teased me for being so competitive.”

Rodzinka learned about the U.S. Naval Academy during a middle school class and tended a desire to one day become a naval officer herself.

Water, swimming, ships, the navy, it all made sense in an unformed way. After applying and completing hurdles in her path to being accepted to the academy, she was medically disqualified. The disappointment did not torpedo her commitment to serve.

After high school, with no immediate plans to attend college, Rodzinka opted to enlist in the U.S. Navy but her mother, who wanted Rodzinka to further her education, disapproved. As the summer after high school wound down in her hometown, Rodzinka sat in front of her laptop and searched three words: “College, water polo and engineering.”

The University of Idaho popped up.

And the state’s land grant university was still accepting applications.

Jo Rodzinka
A competitive swimmer in high school, mechanical engineering student Jo Rodzinka enrolled at U of I and joined NROTC in hopes of being offered a scholarship.

“I said, mom, I’m going to Idaho,” Rodzinka said.

I thought, ‘I can do that.’

— Jo Rodzinka, mechanical engineering student and NROTC midshipman

With her mom’s help, she landed in Moscow well before classes started and, along with an empty campus, was met with dreary smoke from an extended Northwest fire season. It wasn’t exactly a welcoming site, but Rodzinka was undeterred. Before classes began, Rodzinka acted upon a truant nudge to check out U of I’s NROTC office and began spending time and work outs with the unit.

“I just showed up and tagged along with the hope of standing out and getting offered a scholarship,” Rodzinka said.

She soon signed up and was eventually offered a national NROTC scholarship.

“I really didn’t know anything about the military, and I didn’t know anything about engineering,” she said. “I just knew I was pretty good at math, and I always wanted to be a Navy officer.”

At U of I, she became immersed in freshman life. Through her engineering classes she learned new ways to apply math to forces that make things move, assisting in the design of machines, engines, turbines and generators. She considered joining the nuclear submarine program but found it intimidating until her swimmer’s mentality struck.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she said.

Having grown up in a city and state known for competitive swimming and urban fast pace, Rodzinka said her U of I experience far exceeded anything she expected after hitting “Enter” on her keyboard more than three years ago.

“I didn’t know what I’d find,” she said. “I didn’t really have a plan.”

U of I’s small-college environment, its welcoming faculty and NROTC cadre, and her love of swimming — she did a stint as president of the U of I water polo club team — gave her focus and a goal.

“I have been able to integrate myself in multiple communities here. I believe that there really is something for everyone, which creates a sense of belonging and home for me,” she said. “Between the unit, my job, the gym, my friends at school, and my friends in the community, there is so much to gain and experience. If you’re willing to put yourself out there and join some communities, it is endlessly rewarding.“

To become a nuclear officer Rodzinka had to clear a board exam administered in Washington D.C. Being a nuclear officer requires a lot of academic work, she said, so her future in the Navy will likely entail high academic expectations.

She will attend dive school next summer not because the school with its 80% attrition rate is part of her Navy curriculum, but just because.

“I'm doing that purely by choice because I love to swim, and it sounds awesome. It's another big challenge but again — I think I can do it,” she said.

She has hopes for a job on a fast attack submarine because it fits her style, she said.

“They go all over the place and do a lot cooler stuff than other subs,” she said.

Rodzinka’s U of I experience has been enriched by water. She regularly rafts the Salmon and Snake rivers with friends, who she calls her adoptive family, and has developed a proclivity for hiking and camping in Idaho’s mountains.

“You can drive an hour in any direction and discover something beautiful that you’ve never seen before,” she said. “I've gone hiking, running, rafting, swimming, kayaking and cliff jumping while I’ve lived here, and I plan to do much more.”

Woman wearing a ballcap raises arms while swimming in a river.
Since coming to Idaho mechanical engineering student and NROTC midshipman Jo Rodzinka has hiked mountains, ran trails, rafted and swam in the Snake and Salmon rivers.

Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications.

Photos by Garrett Britton, University Visual Productions.

Published in December 2023.

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