Students get an enhanced college experience through Vanderbilt ROTC
by Kara Furlong
photo by John Russell
It’s 6 a.m. in late August, and the sun is rising over the Vanderbilt track. The newest recruits to Vanderbilt’s Army ROTC program, clad in matching shorts and T-shirts, are assembled at one end of the track, flanked by upperclassmen holding clipboards and wearing fatigues tucked into high-laced boots. The new students, alert with anticipation, wait their turn in line. Each has two minutes to complete a certain number of push-ups, then sit-ups, to be followed by a timed, two-mile run. The upperclassmen – seasoned ROTC cadets – record their times and cheer them on.
This isn’t boot camp, but it is an orientation. These 20 young men and women are taking their first Army Physical Fitness Test, which they will repeat for practice once a month and must pass once every semester to maintain their ROTC scholarship eligibility. The early-morning workout is something they must get used to as well. Army ROTC meets three times a week in the pre-dawn hours for physical training.
This is the scene that comes to mind when one thinks of ROTC – uniformed students performing coordinated physical tasks. But Vanderbilt’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps – which includes undergraduate and graduate students preparing for required four- or five-year stretches in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force – is much more.
From Students to Officers
ROTC is a college-based officer commissioning program of the United States Armed Forces. Designed as a college elective, students complete course work and physical training requirements to earn commission as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army, Marine Corps or Air Force, or ensigns in the U.S. Navy, upon graduation. The other sources for officer commissioning are graduation from a U.S. military academy or from a federal Officer Candidate School, but roughly half of all active-duty U.S. military officers are commissioned through ROTC programs hosted on nearly 300 college campuses around the country.
In addition to physical conditioning, Vanderbilt ROTC cadets (as the Army students are called) and midshipmen (as the Navy students are known) participate in a rigorous academic program that includes military science, leadership and ethics courses. They receive hands-on training aboard Navy ships and at Army bases over the summer months. They are regularly counseled on their personal and career development. And they enjoy a trust and camaraderie with their fellow ROTC students that is hard-to-match by any other campus organization – all while ROTC’s commanding officers work to ensure that the experience is fully integrated with Vanderbilt’s overall academic and social missions.
Participation in ROTC also comes with a generous scholarship: full tuition, books and academic fees, plus money toward housing costs and a monthly stipend for living expenses. While this is an asset of the program, it’s not the only draw, said Lt. Col. Jim Wilburn, professor of military science and director of Army Officer Education at Vanderbilt.
“In the past, we really pushed the financial-aid aspect. But in the last several years, we’ve changed the message,” Wilburn said. “The shift has been more toward ‘This is a challenging academic program that leads to becoming an officer in the United States military, and there are some tremendous responsibilities associated with that, especially in the times we live in now.’ So the push now is toward those who enjoy challenge and excitement and thrive on it to move ahead and become leaders.” This change in focus has helped ROTC to recruit and retain more highly qualified students, he said.
Wilburn works closely with Admissions to identify what he calls “scholar-athlete-leaders,” or “SALs.” These are students with high standardized test scores and grade point averages, athletic aptitude – necessary for the inherently physical nature of the military – and natural leadership ability. In addition to being recruited to ROTC, students can “walk on” at the start of the academic year, and anyone can take ROTC courses for elective credit through the sophomore level.
Learning the Ropes
Weekly life for a ROTC student includes those early-morning physical training sessions, courses in military or naval science, and “labs” to teach and practice fundamental military skills. Each semester, students do field training exercises off campus at local parks or on military posts. Summers bring more in-depth training.
Students in Navy ROTC, for example, spend the summer after their freshman year doing CORTRAMID (Career Orientation and Training for Midshipmen), a four-week program that embeds them with naval ships or squadrons for surface, submarine, aviation and Marine Corps training. The program serves to introduce the midshipmen to the four service options that will be available to them as newly commissioned officers.
“CORTRAMID tends to be an experience that is very similar to the enlisted experience,” explained Capt. Jamie Hopkins, professor of naval science and commanding officer of Navy ROTC at Vanderbilt. “They will berth in enlisted berthing and work alongside some of the enlisted personnel so that they can see what the Navy is about from the ground up. We think it’s very important for them to have that feel, because if you’re going to be leading men and women later, it’s good to have some sense of how difficult what you’re asking them to do is.”
Scholarship students have their freshman year and the summer after to decide if ROTC truly is for them. Beginning their sophomore year, they are obligated to complete the program and enter military service upon graduation. ROTC students are considered civilians until the officer commissioning ceremony held each year on Vanderbilt’s Commencement day.
The ROTC faculty strives to provide a curriculum to the students that meets Vanderbilt’s rigid academic standards and utilizes its faculty expertise. Professors and lecturers with advanced knowledge of military subject matter, politics, world events and organizational leadership – such as the law school’s Mike Newton, Political Science’s Katherine Carroll, Communications’ Willy Stern and Peabody’s Michael McLendon – are invited to speak to the students on a regular basis.
The diversity of ideas, backgrounds and academic majors represented in ROTC is celebrated. Vanderbilt plays host to ROTC students from as many as nine affiliated universities, including Belmont, Lipscomb, Tennessee State, Fisk, Trevecca, Free Will Baptist and more.
“I think that ROTC has a unique position right now,” Hopkins said. “We have an all-volunteer military, and while that is great in many respects, one of the dangers of an all-volunteer military is that you become too homogeneous in attitudes and views.
“Where ROTC provides growth in that area is that you have students who have been exposed to all different views. We have some students who are very conservative, and we have some who are exceptionally liberal – and that’s great because the military needs all of those views to come to an elegance of solution that is only possible when you have diversity within the group.”
Wilburn credits Vanderbilt’s administration for supporting ROTC and setting a tone of inclusiveness on campus.
“What I really enjoy about Vanderbilt is that there’s such an open dialogue among all groups,” he said. “Any time there’s been an issue that may have come across as political, we’ve had no problem sitting down and discussing it.
“Our students feel overwhelming support from professors and fellow students when they wear their uniforms on campus. That’s a great environment to be in.”
The ROTC experience also provides students with a unique opportunity for personal growth and a comprehensive system for evaluating and refining their development. Army cadets, for instance, undergo two evaluations each semester: an initial talk to discuss expectations and a later one to review performance strengths and weaknesses. Progress reports follow the students throughout the program. Rather than being sources of dread, these reviews are sincerely sought by the cadets as guidelines for improvement.
“The great thing is that the criticism is never personal; you are being evaluated in a totally objective way,” said Steven Ho, a senior cadet. “I learned that my instructor saw things in my performance that I had no idea he knew about.”
Wilburn also has put in place a mentorship program in which every first-year cadet is assigned both a sophomore and a senior peer mentor. These mentors help the freshmen acclimate to ROTC and to college life, and offer advice based on their own experiences. In turn, the seniors gain valuable insight on counseling a subordinate, a responsibility they will take on as Army officers.
“I want them to start adopting that role now, because they soon will have 18- and 19-year-old individuals assigned to their units that they’ll have to sit down with and help,” Wilburn said.
This kind of one-on-one attention is paying off for Vanderbilt’s “Go Gold” battalion. The summer following junior year, every ROTC cadet in the nation attends LDAC (Leadership Development and Assessment Course) in Fort Lewis, Wash., where they rotate through leadership positions over a month-long period. The cadets are assessed and ranked against their peers to establish a national Order of Merit. Last year the Vanderbilt cadets’ average Order of Merit score made the program the second-best in the nation and the first among private universities by a wide margin, with half of Vanderbilt’s cadets achieving the highest possible rank in their LDAC regiments.
Service and Beyond
The cadets’ LDAC rankings also better their chances of being assigned to their preferred branch of the Army upon graduation. Vanderbilt’s record stands at 98 percent of cadets getting their No. 1 choice. The Army’s specialties are numerous: aviation, infantry, armor, field artillery, communications, intelligence, special forces, medical service, engineering corps and more. The Army service obligation following ROTC is eight years – four years of active duty service and four years in the Individual Ready Reserve.
“For individuals who are looking at a short-term service, military experience is extremely marketable in the outside world,” Wilburn said. “The leadership experience, management skills, responsibility for resources – sometimes millions of dollars in equipment – reflect very favorably in terms of their employment opportunities later on.
“For those looking at a career in the military, they can retire in 20 years with a full pension, which is 50 percent of your pay,” he said. “Very few organizations can match that.”
The obligation for Navy ROTC students is five years of active duty service for those choosing the straight Navy option, four years for those going the Marine Corps or Nursing Corps routes.
Ensign John Laughrey, a 2010 Vanderbilt graduate, likes the stability that his Navy service will offer.
“A lot of my friends were counting on having jobs after college. They’ve spent every summer doing internships, and now the jobs they wanted aren’t there,” said Laughrey, who will specialize in information warfare. “I like that I know what to expect at this point. I guess that’s not for everybody, but I’m happy with it.”
Military life is transient, said Hopkins, who counts 16 permanent-change-of-station moves in his career. But change can be a good thing, too. Personality clashes don’t last very long when one or the other of the participants changes positions within 18 months.
“It also affords you an opportunity to see a huge amount of the world,” Hopkins said. “I grew up in East Tennessee. I think it’s very safe to say I wouldn’t have spent time in Cannes, France; in Italy; in so many different countries if I’d had a ‘normal’ job. My family has seen so much at this stage in our lives. My kids have interacted with children from other cultures. There’s a tremendous amount of upside in the exposure and the opportunity that Navy service brings.”
Perhaps the best endorsement of Vanderbilt’s ROTC program comes from the students who have experienced
“Right off the bat, NROTC shaped my college experience,” said Ariana Tabing, a 2010 graduate who is continuing her education at Vanderbilt Medical School on a military scholarship. “We were required to meet a week before school started to get ‘indoctrinated’ into Navy traditions and discipline. Because of this, I made friends with a group of people before the first day of class. Sharing experiences with my fellow midshipmen gave us a special camaraderie, and waking up early for PT and drill brought us together.
“After residency I will serve about eight years as a Navy doctor, either at home, abroad or on an aircraft carrier,” she said. “I’m leaning toward a surgical specialty, and I hope to do a tour as a flight surgeon sometime during my career. I love the fact that I have no idea where I’ll be in 10 years, and that there are so many options and opportunities ahead.”
For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/army or www.vanderbilt.edu/nrotc.
Additional photography by Steve Green, Joe Howell and Susan Urmy
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