For Thalia Cintron, a trip last summer to the 9/11 Museum in New York sealed the deal.

Growing up in Atwater Village in Los Angeles, her single mother, Jennifer Leyva, and other relatives always told her to thank military service members when she encountered them.

When Thalia was 12, a close cousin joined the U.S. Army.

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

So when Cintron saw the 56-foot-long bronze memorial to firefighters who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the motto inscribed on it really hit home: “Dedicated to those who fell, and those who carry on.”

“I don’t want this to ever happen again,” she said. “I want to protect my country.”

Cintron will now get her chance by deciding to join the Air Force Academy after graduating from Providence High School in Burbank, and wants to become a military intelligence officer.

With a strong, hard-working mother as a role model, and a penchant for building up those around her that she developed for years playing volleyball, Cintron has the tools to succeed, according to those who know her best.

“She will figure out what she has to do to be successful and then she will go about getting it done,” said Coach Mike, who coached Cintron in volleyball from fourth to eighth grade at Holy Trinity School and for the past two years at Elysian Valley Recreation Center. “No one will outwork her.”

Funny, polite, and humble, Cintron pointed to her all-Catholic schooling as a character builder — as well as her mother, who often worked two jobs raising her.

“I saw how strong and independent she was and how she carried all this weight on her shoulders, and that inspired me,” Cintron said.

Thalia Cintron, right, poses with Air Force Lt. Kyle Villacorta after graduating from Providence High School on June 1. (Submitted photo)

Holy Trinity was a two-minute walk from Cintron’s house. She recalled her and her mother packing lunch every morning together. Jennifer, who grew up Catholic, said the hard work to pay for private, Catholic schooling was a priority. 

“I wanted to make sure she had that Catholic school foundation and discipline,” Jennifer said.

That foundation was ultimately made possible thanks to help from the Catholic Education Foundation of Los Angeles (CEF), which provided tuition assistance during Cintron’s four years at Providence High. 

Before that, Cintron was an altar server at Holy Trinity Church from grades 2-8. During seventh grade, she and her classmates visited Washington, D.C. Cintron fell in love with it.

Her interest in social studies, government, and history continued during her time at Providence High, a Catholic co-ed, college preparatory high school founded by the Sisters of Providence.

When Cintron was a sophomore in high school, her mother suggested she apply to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Cintron then did the same for the Air Force Academy.

Her visit to Ground Zero came after she attended the West Point Summer Leaders Experience last June. Led by current West Point cadets, the event is a weeklong immersion into the academic, military, and social life of a West Point cadet.

In the end, though, Cintron chose to remain closer to home and join the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

“I relied a lot on prayer in deciding,” Cintron said. “My faith got stronger during the process. I read the Bible a lot.”

On June 22, Cintron, her mother, and other relatives were scheduled to fly to the academy in Colorado. After being sworn in on June 27, she’ll report to basic training for six weeks. Her four years of academy schooling, which she will enjoy on a full scholarship, begins in mid-August.

After graduating, Cintron will serve five years of active duty and then three years as a reservist.

Thalia Cintron reacts during a match with the Providence High volleyball team. Cintron was a senior libero, a defensive specialist. (Submitted photo)

She’s confident in her ability to integrate into the collaborative nature of the Air Force Academy largely in part due to the lessons learned playing volleyball at Providence High. 

“It’s taught me that I need to be strong as an individual but also that I can’t let that get to my head and I need to work with my teammates and bring them up as well,” said Cintron, who was a libero — a defensive specialist — on the team. “If one person’s energy falls, the entire team’s energy falls.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also taught Cintron some lessons. Isolating herself during her first year of high school, she said, was particularly tough.

“It was very hard to focus on school online,” said Cintron, who maintained a 4.0 GPA. “I relied on my friends. We held each other accountable. Staying in contact with people is critical. Also, I learned a lot about time management during the pandemic.”

Jennifer said it’s going to be tough saying goodbye to her daughter at the Air Force Academy. But she knows Cintron has made the right choice.

“She knew how to be responsible from a very young age, and frankly, she’s been very easy — I’ve never had any issues with her,” she said. “I’m so proud of her. She’s worked very hard to get to where she’s at. She earned it.”

Coach Mike, who also is Thalia’s godfather, agreed.

“She will combine her God-given talents with a great desire to excel and a work ethic that is second to none,” he said. “She has made me so proud of her accomplishments, and she’s made all of Holy Trinity School and Providence High School proud.”