GROTON, Conn. – Midshipmen 1st Class Nsombi Roberts got her first taste of life aboard a submarine when she spent a week underway on the Groton-based attack submarine USS Virginia this past summer.
“You don’t notice that you’re actually in water as much as you do on a ship,” Roberts said of her time on the Virginia, which she “really enjoyed.”
The crew was “very welcoming” to her and the other Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps midshipmen aboard, who all had an interest in the submarine force and were there to observe.
Roberts is a senior majoring in chemistry with a minor in mathematics at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La.
She’s also a member of NROTC, one of the ways to enter the Navy during college. Upon graduating, NROTC midshipmen become commissioned Naval officers.
The USS Virginia experience was something the 22-year-old Palm Bay, Fla., native highlighted last fall in an interview with Adm. James F. Caldwell Jr., director of the naval nuclear propulsion program.
The interview was the last step in the submarine selection process, which Roberts started about a year ago.
Shortly after the interview – what felt like 30 seconds later, Roberts said – she was told she’d been selected for submarine service.
She is the first African-American woman from NROTC, and one of only five women from across NROTC, to be selected.
“I was definitely excited,” Roberts said. “The first thing I wanted to do was to call my mom, but I didn’t have my cellphone.”
Her mom had been calling all day to check in, but Roberts didn’t have her cellphone on her since the interview took place in a building that has restricted access.
“It’s definitely hitting me,” Roberts said of being one of a small number of women selected so far to serve on submarines. “I’m in a bigger light now and a lot of people are noticing me. Some people actually are looking up to me to be successful. So (there’s) definitely a little bit of pressure, but good pressure.”
She recently received a letter from the office of Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michelle Howard congratulating her.
“I was definitely shocked and a little shaken … just getting anything from her or her office is a big deal for me,” Roberts said.
Already thinking about serving 20 years in the Navy, Roberts has her sights set on commanding a submarine one day.
As she explained, she’s the type of person who “needs a challenge to be interested and engaged all the time.”
Since meeting her two years ago, Lt. Kevin Zimmerly, submarine warfare officer at Southern University NROTC, said Roberts has talked to him frequently about becoming a submariner.
“She knew a lot about the program already,” Zimmerly said.
He filled in the remaining details.
Zimmerly interviewed Roberts nine times, asking her questions involving calculus and physics, to prepare her for her two technical interviews and the interview with Adm. Caldwell.
Roberts has held a number of leadership positions within the NROTC program while maintaining good grades and a busy schedule.
As one of four platoon commanders this semester, Roberts is one of the people the 13 members of her platoon turn to if they have a problem. She also helps to disseminate information from her superiors to her platoon members.
“We’re all midshipmen, but we’re all college students as well,” Roberts said. “So we understand the balance between that and with me being a senior, it’s easy to help anybody who has a problem because most likely I’ve gone through it.”
After graduating in May, Roberts will have to complete nuclear power training in Charleston, S.C., and nuclear prototype training in either Charleston or Ballston, N.Y., each of which takes six months, before starting at the Naval Submarine School in Groton.
Ultimately, if she completes sub school and any other required training, she’ll be assigned as a division officer aboard a submarine.