Mankato--St. James High School alumna Guadalupe Almaguer recently earned the title “U.S. Marine” after graduating from Marine Corps recruit training in Paris Island December 6. “Just to walk in our door is a challenge for people, because (the Marines) are seen as intimidating,” said Sgt. Steven Mariette, a career counselor at the Marines Mankato branch who has led Almaguer's recruitment process. “To decide to join the Marines is the biggest decision they make, because it's a life-changing decision. (Almaguer) has come a long way, and we have high hopes for her.” Almaguer, 18, lived in Madelia for seven years before relocating to St. James when she was 10. She was raised by her aunt, Maria Briones, and said the “father figure” in her life was her older brother, Jose Samilpa. Her sister, Jessica Samilpa, enlisted in the United States Army when she was a senior in high school. Now 35, Samilpa went on to fly helicopters in the service, and she serves as a role-model for Almaguer. “She inspired me a lot, and I really wanted to be like her,” Almaguer said. “There are such a small number of females in the Marines, so I wanted that challenge.” Mariette said the Marines are the smallest service branch, with about 200,000, and they're supposed to be down around 174,000 by 2015. Because of their relative scarcity, the Marines often use the slogan “the few, the proud, the Marines,” and since females are an even smaller part of an already small branch, many women in the Marines call themselves “the fewer and the prouder.” Almaguer said there is a natural “sisterhood” among the female Marines by virtue of their circumstances. “As soon as we see each other, it's a sisterhood you can't compare to anything, and there's so much mutual respect,” she said. “I see myself in them; those females inspire me so much, and I take a little out of them, and I realize that's what I want to do.” She said the difficulty of becoming a Marine actually attracted her to the service branch. “So many people told me I couldn't do it, and that negativity fueled me,” she said. “You think I'm going to fail, so I'm going to work twice as hard to prove you wrong.” Mariette said being a Marine is not a job; it's a 24/7 lifestyle. “You hear people say, 'I was in the Navy,' or 'I was in the Army,'” he said. “But, people say, 'I am a Marine.' You are forever a U.S. Marine.” “(The Marines are) the strictest for a boot camp, so it turns a lot of people away--male and female,” he said. (Marines) are the type of people who thrive on proving people wrong; that's one of our personality traits--we're always out to prove ourselves.” During recruit training, the demanding physical fitness regimen placed Almaguer in the best shape of her life, he said. The training honed vital military skills such as marksmanship, first-aid, martial arts and leadership. Initially, she was about 80 pounds overweight, but her human support system helped her get into peak physical condition. “I wouldn't have been able to lose that weight without the Marines in this office,” she said. “I also had buddies here, and we helped push each other.” Almaguer said the 13 weeks of boot camp were not as physically challenging as some people made it out to be--probably because of the time she already spent getting into shape--but the mental hurdles were tougher. “There's a mental block of, 'I can't get through it,' that you need to break through,” she said. “That's the hardest thing, the mental challenge.” Mariette said those 13 weeks “take you from who you are as a civilian and make you into a Marine.” “It's a huge adjustment for everyone,” said Mariette, who has been in the Marines for eight years but only started working at the Mankato recruiting substation in the last month. “We are very proud of (Almaguer).” Beginning Jan. 7, 2014, Almaguer will be in North Carolina's Camp Geiger for roughly six weeks of Marine Combat Training (M.C.T.). Following that, she'll spend time in Mississippi for Military Occupation Specialty School (M.O.S.), where she'll learn how to be an aircraft administration specialist, which she hopes leads to her ultimate goal of becoming a pilot This will also require a four-year degree and becoming an officer, Mariette said, because only officers fly in the Marines. Almaguer said she wants to be a pilot like her sister, and being an aircraft administration specialist will allow her to learn a great deal about aircrafts Mariette added the Marines are always looking for exceptional men and women to join, with the emphasis on “exceptional.” Fewer than one percent of Americans can call themselves Marines, he said, so words like selective and elite certainly apply. “She's proof that if you just set your mind to do it, you can accomplish it.” Ryan Anderson can be reached at