Joining Forces to Shape Tomorrow’s Leaders

Written by Samantha Bronson, Photos by Barbara Ries

Some might call it an odd pairing—and Army ROTC program housed at a Jesuit university in the heart of one of the country's most liberal cities—but the ROTC program at USF has found a peaceful coexistence, turning out leaders that are making the university and the U.S. Army proud.

Kelli Ishihara felt confident in her leadership abilities. As a captain on her high school track team, both her coaches and fellow athletes looked to her to help keep the team organized at track meets and make sure athletes were at their events on time.

Now, as a senior at the University of San Francisco, Ishihara says that level of leadership was nothing compared with what she handles as a cadet in the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

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Sgt. 1st Class Brian Rasmussen, member of the USF ROTC cadre, supervises Cadet Charlene Avila during the combat water survival test in the pool at the Koret Health and Recreation Center.
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Cadet Rex Han (right) listens as Cadet Kelli Ishihara briefs him and other members of the USF Ranger Challenge competition team.
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A recent week found her helping to plan the battalion's combat water survival exercise in the pool at the Koret Health and Recreation Center. The training includes a 10-minute swim in uniform and a 25-meter swim holding a dummy rifle above the water. The logistics of the training—from coordinating with Koret staff to making sure cadets show up at the right time for the right tests—are up to Ishihara and other senior cadets. Yet, they know that handling the logistics is but on aspect of being a leader.

"In ROTC, you have to take on more of a teaching role, more so than in high school, providing direction to others," said Ishihara, a biology major who is applying to medical school with the hope the Army will pay for it in exchange for extended service. "Teaching is a big thing and during your senior year, it's your job to pass on your experience and knowledge to those less experienced in the program. That's a big thing—teaching and guiding of other people. Throughout, you have to keep in mind that you always have to represent yourself as a professional and conduct yourself in front of others in a professional manner."

Those can be challenging expectations for anyone, let alone a college student, but cadets in the program are preparing for leadership positions from the very moment they step into the Army jobs waiting for them.


—Lt. Col. Derek Reeve, USF military science professor

Ishihara, like all cadets, will graduate and earn her commission as an Army second lieutenant the same day. While the financial benefit of ROTC is most often what draws students to the program—four years of college completely paid for by the Army in exchange for eight years of service—cadets often cite leadership skills as the biggest non-monetary benefit, one that can serve them in the Army and beyond.

Yet despite being in good company—USF's ROTC program has grown by 38 percent in the past five years—Ishihara has chosen an educational path that is unfamiliar to many. Sure, it's difficult to miss the group of cam-
ouflage-clad cadets exercising on the slope of Lone Mountain, but few outside the program understand much about it, how the cadets benefit, or how their Army training fits in with a Jesuit education.

"Our main job is to make leaders," said Lt. Col. Derek Reeve, a military science professor at USF. "We're making the Army's leaders and the values piece of it is absolutely critical. From the first day on the job, officers are making decisions, from managing tax-payer-purchased equipment to looking out for other people."

Learning To Lead

Formally established in 1916, ROTC is a college-based officer-commissioning program and is the largest officer-producing organization within the American military. The USF battalion is one of the largest, as a percentage of the student body, in California, and the number continues to increase, currently enroll-
ing about 90 cadets. Although the battalion also includes students from several other local universities, including San Francisco State University, the vast majority of cadets are USF students.

The program draws cadets from all majors —currently 26 represented—as well as a number of female students. About 33 percent of cadets are women, well above the national ROTC average of 20 to 25 percent. Two of the three previous battalion commanders have been women.

Behind the numbers is a significant in-school commitment all cadets must make. In addition to the regular coursework required for their majors, cadets take a military science course each semester to learn the ins and outs of the Army. They also must participate in a weekly three-hour leadership lab that focuses on hands-on Army skills such as land navigation training, combat water survival training, and squad tactics.

That's all in addition to crack-of-dawn physical training in Hagan Gymnasium three times a week and a once-per-semester field training exercise that lasts from Thursday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. Often held on military bases, the field training hones cadets' land navigation skills—they use nothing but a compass—while also teaching them how to effectively issue orders to carry out whatever Army-related mission they're on. Both physically and mentally demanding, the training exercise often leaves cadets exhausted, just in time to begin a new week of classes and homework.

Cadets are expected to step into various leadership roles throughout their tenure in the program, helping to plan and implement trainings. As cadets progress through the program, they are given an increasing level of leadership responsibility. Freshmen and sophomore cadets, for example, primarily follow orders. Juniors and seniors give orders as they rotate through a variety of specific leadership positions in the battalion.

Just as a definite chain of command exists in the Army, so, too, does it exist in ROTC. The battalion's officers determine the focus of the weekly labs and the main objectives they want cadets to learn. The seniors then take that direction and plan out all the details for the weekly labs, from the specific drills to be done to the time and location. Junior cadets make sure sophomores and freshmen know where to be and when and what's expected of them during the trainings; juniors also typically run the trainings while the senior cadets evaluate how well they lead. A significant part of that leadership is learning to serve as a role model and to be comfortable speaking in front of groups. "I wasn't afraid of public speaking before ROTC, but I can definitely tell I'm better at it now," said Ishihara.

Additionally, cadets learn to trust their own judgment and to not be afraid to make decisions, but to do so in a way that takes into consideration their fellow cadets. "We're forced to work together and find a way to make things work and get things done without upsetting your peers, without stepping on their toes," Ishihara said.

Not only does the leadership experience prepare cadets for their Army careers, but it also helps ready them for the Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC), a four-week program cadets attend at Ft. Lewis, Wash. between their junior and senior years. Throughout the program, cadets are given tactical tasks and situations to contend with and are evaluated on their leadership skills. That evaluation, along with other criteria, goes into the rank ordering of all senior ROTC cadets nationally. It's that ordering that determines whether cadets receive one of their top choices of branch assignments after graduation.

In addition to the four weeks at LDAC, many cadets participate even more fully in ROTC through activities such as Color Guard and Ranger Challenge. Sophomore history major Mike O'Connor, for example, was part of the battalion's nine-person Ranger Challenge team last year that placed first at a regional competition and is again training for the competition this year.

Have what it takes?

For ROTC cadets, the financial reward is great—four years at USF paid for, including housing—but it’s no free ride.

Here’s what is expected of cadets while they’re in school:

  • Take one military science course per semester.
  • Participate in at least three physical training sessions per week.
  • Participate in weekly three-hour leadership labs.
  • Participate in a field training exercise that lasts for three days once per semester.

The challenge, which provides cadets with physical and mental challenges while competing against other ROTC battalions, requires months of intense preparation.

For his part, O'Connor wakes at 5 a.m. every weekday to make it to a 5:45 a.m. physical training with his teammates. The specific exercises vary—some days it could be a full body circuit workout, other days may bring an 8-1/2-mile run up Twin Peaks—but each lasts until 7:30 a.m. That gives O'Connor barely enough time to rush back to his dorm room on Lone Mountain, shower, change, and make it to his 8 a.m. class. After a full day of classes, he and other Challenge members work on non-physical skills such as first aid.

It all adds up to a demanding schedule that requires O'Connor to stay not just on top of schoolwork, but ahead of it. "If it's an essay due in two weeks, then I start on it now," he said. "The time management aspect of ROTC has definitely been a challenge. I wasn't used to so much on my plate at one time."

It's a sentiment consistently echoed by cadets, all of whom are juggling the typical demands of college life with their ROTC obligations. As demanding as the physical component of ROTC can be, they say, the balancing of everything can be even more of a challenge. Like O'Connor, cadets must learn to plan ahead when it comes to assignments and even day-to-day preparation. There is no rolling out of bed, grabbing a backpack, and heading out to class just in time; like many cadets, O'Connor always preps his bags the night before.

Yet cadets say they don't feel as though they're missing out on typical college life. They have friends—both in the program and outside it—and enjoy downtime, especially on weekends.

"I do have less available time to watch TV, but that's not a big deal," said Ishihara.

More fundamental is less time available to sleep. Cadet Morgan Harper, a junior nursing major, aims to finish homework by midnight, but said she can only handle that and an early wake-up for physical training because she sneaks in naps whenever she can.

As Ishihara puts it: "I think everybody's sleep suffers a little bit in ROTC."

The Bottom Line

Still, the sacrifice, cadets say, is worth it. The program pays cadets' full tuition for four years and also provides $1,200 each year for books and between $300 and $500 a month for living expenses. As testament to USF's commitment to the ROTC program, the university pays for cadets' on-campus room and board for four years, a level of financial support few other universities offer.

Cadets must:

  • Maintain a 2.0 grade-point average (cumulative, each semester, and in ROTC classes).
  • Pass an Army physical fitness test each semester.
  • Maintain Army height/weight standards each semester.

If cadets fail any of these requirements, they lose their tuition scholarship for that semester.

For Harper, ROTC made attending USF a possibility. She'd longed to study nursing at USF, but had no idea how to pay for it. Financial aid wasn't available to her family, so she worried about her parents footing the entire bill.

"Going through college and not worrying about the finances is very comforting," said Harper. "The economy is rough right now and who knows how the economic state of the country is going to be when I graduate? I made the decision to join ROTC because of the financial and job security post-graduation. Instead of trying to dig myself out of a debt hole, I can focus on financially stabilizing myself with the income I'll have when I graduate and commission."

After graduating, all cadets have jobs waiting for them in one of the Army's branches, from infantry to military police to the Army Nurse Corps. And with USF's strong nursing school, the ROTC battalion has historically been one of the top producers of Army nurses.

Battling Misperceptions


—Cadet Morgan Harper, junior, nursing major

On college campuses across the nation, ROTC programs have been the target of criticism throughout the decades, with recent complaints often stemming from disagreement over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the military's don't ask, don't tell policy regarding gay and lesbian soldiers. Some schools outright ban ROTC programs.

Yet at USF—in the heart of this most liberal city—ROTC cadets say they feel right at home. So much so, in fact, that many are surprised by the lack of reaction.

"I thought there was going to be some uneasiness with students, but people have been very accepting," Harper said. "I have yet to encounter a student or teacher or staff person who has said anything negative."

After graduation, cadets must serve:

  • Four years in the active Army and four years in the inactive reserve.
  • Eight years in the Army National Guard or U.S. Army Reserve.

What cadets receive:

  • Four years of full tuition paid.
  • Four years of on-campus room and board paid (provided by USF).
  • $1,200 per year for books.
  • $300 to $500 monthly stipend (amount depends on class year).

That's not to say there aren't misperceptions the program and its cadets try to remedy. Harper, for example, occasionally finds fellow students are surprised to learn she's in ROTC. Like other cadets, she doesn't often wear her uniform to class and instead favors perfectly on-trend clothes. Many students, she said, don't expect that from someone training for an Army career. Instead, Harper said, they think that anyone in the Army must be very rigid, structured, and politically conservative.

While that may describe some ROTC cadets, it is in no way true of everyone. "We're not all cookie-cutters," Harper said. "We have our own personalities."

What they do share is a desire to be leaders. While ROTC provides that very training, there remains a perception that the program is creating mindless followers, Lt. Col. Reeve said. No one is brainwashed and no one is being trained to kill, he said. Instead, cadets are learning to be leaders in their careers, which may include time on the battlefield. (The program has had a number of its graduates serve in the Middle East.) There is no boot camp or basic training involved since cadets will be commissioned officers and not enlisted soldiers.

Despite this, Lt. Col. Reeve sometimes runs into the belief that any college-aged person could qualify for ROTC. The reality is that there are far fewer scholarships available than the number of applicants, allowing each ROTC program—including USF's—to be even more selective about its cadets.

And at USF, ROTC officers know cadets will have a Jesuit education to draw on as they train to be Army leaders and once they actually step into those roles. While Lt. Col. Reeve sometimes finds himself discussing with cadets Jesuit philosophies they've learned in class, he says the connection between a Jesuit education and an Army career is more intrinsic. The Army's core values, which include such things as integrity and selfless service, are expected of those receiving a Jesuit education. "We probably hold our cadets to an even higher standard because they do go to a Jesuit school," Lt. Col. Reeve said.

As USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J., explains, the university's mission is to offer a rigorous, humanizing education that enables students to fashion a more humane and just world for all—whatever their profession may be.

"Unless one is a total pacifist, defense forces are essential institutions and a respected profession," Fr. Privett said. "Armed forces are to nations what self defense is to individuals. The military profession, like all other professions, will be better served if and when it is led by persons in full possession of their humanity and committed to a better world. I like to think that the My Lai Massacre would never have happened were Lt. William Calley Jesuit-educated or that Jesuit-educated officers would have moved quickly to prevent the genocide in Rwanda and the vicious abuse of women, children, and innocent civilians in the Congo."

In fact, a Jesuit education will likely make cadets even better officers. Lt. Col. Reeve said cadets may not realize that now, but they will once they're dealing with any of the various ethical dilemmas they may face as leaders in the Army. It is then that they will understand the importance of having their ROTC training grounded in a Jesuit education.

"If USF can produce officers of high moral quality, who are concerned with doing the right thing, concerned with ethics," said Lt. Col. Reeve, "that's exactly what the Army wants."

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