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Cadets Meet the Challenge

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A group of the graduating ROTC cadets from American University.

Enrolling in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program is a substantial undertaking. It includes physical training at the crack of dawn, extensive field training, and military science courses. When you add in the regular student course load, these cadets are pushing themselves to the limit. Yet ROTC graduating students at American University are slow to take credit and quick to express gratitude. “I’ve learned so much about leadership and been challenged so much in this program. It’s been wonderful,” says Tyler O’Neal, a graduating cadet in Army ROTC.

Last year, AU was selected as a top military-friendly school by Military Advanced Education, a publication that deals with higher learning issues for service members.

New Graduates

The AU cadets in Army ROTC are part of the Hoya Battalion, which meets at Georgetown University and includes other Washington, D.C. area schools. The graduating cadets took disparate paths to AU, but they later adopted a shared sense of responsibility and sacrifice.

Army ROTC graduating cadet Peter Keiser hails from Mifflinburg, a small town in central Pennsylvania. Growing up, he played bagpipes and was involved in Boy Scouts. Keiser is now earning his degree in international studies in the School of International Service. On campus, he’s also been a part of the co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega.

O’Neal is originally from Fremont, Ohio, and both of his grandfathers served in the Indiana National Guard. “I grew up loving military history. I was a big Civil War buff. And I was sort of fascinated by the military,” he says. O’Neal previously served as an enlisted soldier in the Virginia National Guard. While working at the Department of Homeland Security complex on Nebraska Avenue, a colleague took him across the street to meet with an administrator at AU’s School of Public Affairs. He eventually enrolled in Army ROTC and he’s earning his master’s degree in public administration at SPA.

Nicholas Melfi grew up in Franklin, Massachusetts. He already got accepted to AU when he decided to file paperwork for Army ROTC. With other battalion cadets, Melfi was on the Ranger Challenge team that competes in physical fitness, obstacle course, land navigation, and other exercises. Melfi is getting a dual degree in political science and mathematics and economics.

Air Force ROTC

AU also has cadets in an Air Force ROTC program based at Howard University. Nicole Dallas is one of two Air Force ROTC students graduating this month. She’s getting her bachelor’s degree in political science.

Dallas is a native of Jefferson, Ohio, in the Cleveland metro area, and she’s the first person in her family to pursue military service. “I really started looking at it as a way to pay for school,” she says. “It’s something that I definitely love. And it’s now about more than just the money that they give you.”

“I’m definitely more of an Air Force person. I’m not into crawling around the woods and stuff,” she jokes. “I’ve had fun with it, but I couldn’t do it as my job.”

That’s not to say she wasn’t game for some extreme field training. She took part in a grueling summer training program for 28 days—with each day lasting from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. This also included a special mock deployment. “That is the best part of it all, because you get to actually go out and shoot big guns. And do stuff you’ll never get to do as an Air Force officer, basically.”

Band of Brothers

For the Army ROTC graduates, it’s clear that their experience was not just about school and military service. The AU cadets in the Hoya Battalion formed a fraternal, tight-knit group. “It’s been a really great experience to just get to know these guys. And we all kind of trained together, and became our little band of brothers,” Keiser says. 

Keiser elaborates on this by comparing his situation to non-ROTC students. “You come in and your freshman [residence hall] floor all gets together and hangs out, and that’s who your friends are for the first year. Second year, you develop other friends and it goes on. ROTC, it’s like that one constant friend group in my entire life that just developed over the past four years,” he says. “We just spend so much time together.”

The cadets are united by a common goal of serving their country. So, by its very nature, ROTC encourages members to hash out their differences. “We have to cultivate a community where we all know we can depend on each other,” Keiser explains. “We have to have that camaraderie to be effective.”

“ROTC is not really something you do on your own. It’s something you do together,” adds O’Neal. 

As a graduate student, O’Neal was initially apprehensive about how he’d fit in with the entire group. “I’m almost 30 years old, because I followed this nontraditional path. And almost all the seniors who are graduating are 21 or 22, and I didn’t know if we would really have that much in common,” he says. “But I have made some of the best friends in ROTC that I have ever had.”

O’Neal believes ROTC integrated him into the campus community. “My graduate program largely exists to support students who are working full time,” he says. “I think having that experience of being with a lot of undergrads, people with different backgrounds, I got really plugged into the campus,” he says.

The Next Step

The cadets are now planning for their next assignments. In January, Keiser will head to Virginia for more training. He’s hoping to eventually become an Army captain, which could possibly open up internship opportunities at the Pentagon or White House. O’Neal is going to be a military intelligence officer in the Maryland National Guard. He’ll also keep working in a civilian job, and he’s considering law school at some point. Melfi will soon do infantry training at Fort Benning in Georgia. Dallas will go to intelligence school at the Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.

Whatever career choices these cadets make, serving in ROTC certainly prepared them for future endeavors. Keiser sums it up this way: “One of my suitemates two years ago said that ROTC is a weird mixture between a fraternity and an internship and a job. And it’s so true because that’s what it entails.”