Shipyard Sailor honored as valedictorian

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Curtis Popp speaks at Hawaii Pacific University’s graduation at the Waikiki Shell on May 18.

Story and photo by Liane Nakahara

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Public Affairs

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Machinist Mate 1st Class Curtis Popp’s perseverance through a tough 16-year journey toward a bachelor’s degree resulted in the honor of being a valedictorian at his graduation May 18 from Hawaii Pacific University (HPU).

Thousands of people flocked to the Waikiki Shell to see more than 850 students receive their diplomas at HPU’s spring commencement ceremony. This marked the largest class to ever graduate from HPU. As the military campus program valedictorian, Popp shared his story about discovering his academic passion and overcoming major obstacles to earn a bachelor of science in business administration degree with magna cum laude honors.

“It is wonderful to see one of our Sailors honored as the valedictorian,” said Capt. Larry Hill, deputy shipyard commander. “Petty Officer Curtis Popp puts forth 110 percent every day at work and he clearly has set high goals for himself.”

With no money to pay for college, Popp enlisted in the Navy right out of high school and spent four years on the USS Nevada (SSBN 733). He then used the G.I. Bill and attended Olympic College in Bremerton, Wash., where he earned an associate in liberal arts degree. However, without a clear degree path in mind, Popp decided to re-enlist in the Navy in 2005 and save the G.I. Bill for later.

“It was during that tour that I finally figured out what I wanted to major in – business management,” he said. “I realized that if I wanted to be a naval officer, then I should prepare myself as much as possible for leadership.”

However, during his time on USS Olympia (SSN 717), his work schedule did not allow any time for classes. Popp eventually came to the shipyard in July 2009 and was determined to obtain a degree and submit an Officer Candidate School (OCS) package. He decided to go back to school even though at that point, he was responsible for two children under the age of four years, a six-month-old nephew, and another baby on the way.

“I have the best, most supportive wife in the world, and together, we decided we would do whatever it took to make it work and I would get that degree,” said Popp.

However, life threw another curve ball at the Popp family when their son was born with a life-threatening congenitive heart defect, which required immediate open heart surgery. The shipyard assisted the Popp family in traveling to and from San Diego, where the surgery needed to be done.

“It was during this crisis that I realized the true love and support of not only my family and friends but also my command,” said Popp. “My command took care of us more than I had ever expected or hoped for, and I will be eternally grateful to all of them.”

Popp returned to Hawaii one week before the fall semester began at HPU. His determination drove him to complete all academic requirements for his bachelor’s degree in just a year and a half.

Hill said he is proud of Popp’s great achievement because professional development is extremely valuable to the future of our Navy and the nation. “I understand the challenges associated with adding school to the balancing act of work and family time, and I fully support the time and effort it takes to accomplish those goals,” he said.

Looking ahead to the future, Popp has set goals to earn his master of business administration degree from HPU and continue on to complete a doctorate program. He also plans to submit an OCS package as soon as possible. After retirement from the Navy, he has his sights set on moving to Washington and opening his own investment firm.

Popp’s words of wisdom to his fellow HPU graduates were, “I’ve been there. I took a while to figure out what I really wanted to study and I’ve experienced my fair share of life’s obstacles. The main thing is to keep going and have faith in yourself that you can do it.”

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Category: News