Commitment to classes, country gives Penn State ROTC students added perspective

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Students coming to Penn State ROTC, one of the largest and oldest ROTC programs in the country, have many different backgrounds, but they all leave with a few things in common: a University degree, a core group of friends and the leadership skills and experience to make them successful.

“You’re surrounding yourself with so many people. That’s what Penn State’s about,” said Midshipman Alex Robertson, a Penn State sophomore. “When you finish your ROTC freshman orientation, you have 200 people who you know automatically. I see them all the time around campus, and it’s just really good to have that network.”

Robertson participates in Naval ROTC at Penn State, one of three ROTC programs on the University Park campus.

“They are students and they are also citizen soldiers. We train them to be stewards of the nation. That is something they carry forth at the University level, too,”

— Lt. Chris Miller, Penn State Naval ROTC junior adviser

“It’s made up of all walks of life all throughout the campus,” Lt. Chris Miller, Naval ROTC junior adviser, explained. “We don’t try and recruit certain types of people; it’s open to everybody. That’s what we want to see, a diverse community where we can train from a microcosm of society as a whole.”

During their four years at Penn State, ROTC students have the chance to learn from and eventually lead their peers. Upper-division students have a hand in planning weekly ROTC requirements like physical training and leadership laboratories. There’s also a host of ROTC clubs and events in which students take the lead.

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Newly graduated Penn State Army ROTC cadets listening to a welcoming speech from Major General Jeffrey A. Smith during commissioning ceremonies for Penn State's Army ROTC Nittany Lion Battalion.

Image: Patrick Mansell

“There’s a student command structure in each of the branches, and those students are really organizing everything for the other students,” said Yvonne Gaudelius, associate vice president and senior associate dean for Undergraduate Education. “They rise to those leadership positions through the work that they do and the quality of the work that they do.”

A trio of Penn State staff assistants, government services employees and a ROTC cadre — leaders from the program’s military branch — helps guide upper-division students in the decision-making process, but ultimately, students run the programs. That experience helps prepare students for life after Penn State. When they graduate, ROTC students who have met all the requirements become commissioned officers in the Army, Navy or Air Force. Air Force and Army ROTC graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants, and Naval ROTC graduates are commissioned as ensigns.

“As cadre members, we’re here to teach the academic class and to supervise. Otherwise, they come up with everything,” said Capt. Sara Jeszenszky, an assistant professor for Penn State’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 720. “Our goal is to give them two jobs through their junior and senior year that give them leadership experience.”

History of tradition

Penn State has a long history of molding future leaders. Military training existed at Penn State in an unofficial capacity even before the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, which established military training at land-grant colleges and universities. The name “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps,” or ROTC, was not created until 1916 with the passage of the National Defense Act.

“Knowing that they’re going to come out of it with a Penn State education, Penn State values and a commitment to public service, we’re helping to prepare people to be excellent leaders.”

— Yvonne Gaudelius, associate vice president and senior associate dean for Undergraduate Education

“It is part of the land-grant mission,” Gaudelius said. “Knowing that they’re going to come out of it with a Penn State education, Penn State values and a commitment to public service, we’re helping to prepare people to be excellent leaders.”

Today, Penn State commissions the most officers in the Big Ten, she said. “They’re very strong, too. We have such strong engineering and STEM programs that the military branches know students are getting a good education. We have a very good match of majors.” While science, technology, engineering and mathematics are valued in the armed forces, particularly in the Navy, there’s still room for a wide variety of majors in the programs.

Of the three independent branches, the Army ROTC, called the Nittany Lion Battalion, is the largest program at Penn State with about 350 students at the University Park, Altoona and Hazelton campuses. It also is the largest pure ROTC program in the country, second in size only to military-specific schools like the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, and other senior military colleges.

Penn State’s Air Force ROTC, known as Detachment 720, is the largest Air Force ROTC program among the 37 Northeast Region detachments. It has 195 cadets from the University Park and Altoona campuses and, despite Air Force budget cuts, is the only detachment in the region to increase in size in the past academic year. Overall, Detachment 720 is the eighth-largest Air Force ROTC program in the nation and the second-largest non-senior military college program.

Naval ROTC at Penn State is also one of the largest programs in the U.S. with about 180 students participating.

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Newly commissioned United States Marine Corp, 2nd Lieutenant Hayden Childers received his bars from his parents Karla and Douglas during commissioning ceremonies at Alumni Hall on Penn State's University Park campus.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Although not affiliated with the Penn State ROTC programs, students at other campuses can choose to participate in Army and Air Force ROTC programs through “host” colleges such as Bucknell, Widener, Gannon and Shippensburg universities. Penn State campuses that offer Army ROTC opportunities include Lehigh Valley, Berks, Behrend, Harrisburg, Brandywine, Abington, Wilkes-Barre, Worthington-Scranton, Mont Alto and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Penn State campuses that offer Air Force ROTC opportunities include Worthington-Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton, Abington, Brandywine, Greater Allegheny-McKeesport and New Kensington.

Commitment in class and beyond

The first two years of ROTC consist of about a five-hour weekly commitment: 50 minutes in the classroom, two to three hours of physical training, and two hours in leadership laboratory, which consists of drills, customs and courtesies and training in a field environment. Classes taught by the cadre introduce students to topics such as military history, navigation, logistics, national security, ethics, officership, professionalism, military customs and courtesies, and leadership, management and communications skills.

During this time, the majority of students don’t make a commitment to join the armed forces after graduation. Students are selected based on their performance to participate in a field training or development course either before or after their junior year, depending on the branch. It’s around that time that most ROTC students make a commitment to serve.

“The only time we need a strong commitment — it’s not even a contract yet — is when you move into your junior year. If you’ve met the prerequisites, you might not be contracted at that time, but the implication is that you will contract with us,” said Dave Rizzo, scholarship and enrollment officer with Penn State Army ROTC.

ROTC leaders have a shared philosophy that the Penn State student experience takes precedence, and students can get involved in campus life within and outside of the ROTC. Read more about ROTC student life here.

This flexibility allows students to test the waters of the ROTC program before making a commitment. About half of ROTC students receive scholarships from specific military branches while in high school, and many others plan to participate in the program once they enter college. For those students, ROTC programs hold orientation the week before classes begin, and students get to move in early. However, the recruitment process continues into the fall and spring semesters, Rizzo said, and joining a program is as easy as scheduling an ROTC class.

“Anybody can just walk in. You add the class to your schedule; it’s really just as simple as that,” said Jeszenszky, of Penn State’s Air Force ROTC. “Just try it for a year. If you don’t know if it’s for you, there’s absolutely zero commitment for the first year. Something good will definitely come from it.”

Scholarships in Penn State’s Air Force and Naval ROTC programs are given to students who apply in high school, but students in the Army ROTC have the chance to earn tuition assistance through a ranking process.

“Order of Merit” boards are posted publicly. Rankings, based predominantly on academics and partially on physical fitness tests, are posted using students’ ID numbers. Students see where they fall on the list but don’t know which of their classmates are ranked around them. When scholarships become available, a board of four military representatives and one Penn State representative reviews the applications.

“You add the class to your schedule; it’s really just as simple as that. Just try it for a year. If you don’t know if it’s for you, there’s absolutely zero commitment for the first year. Something good will definitely come from it.”

— Capt. Sara Jeszenszky, assistant professor for Penn State’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 720

As students progress in the program, they take an extra ROTC class their junior and senior years and are given more leadership responsibility over younger students. By the time students graduate and are commissioned, they get to choose their placement based on the order in which they’re ranked nationally and by position available. After graduation, ROTC students typically serve between four to eight years. Depending on the branch, that service time can be divided between active duty and the Army Reserves or National Guard duty.

“One of the things that the armed services are good at is predicting how many officers they’re going to need because people are on a very tightly framed retirement,” Gaudelius said. “For example, they’ll know in four years that they’ll need ‘X’ number of second lieutenants from all the programs in the country.”

Service-minded

While students in ROTC make up a small percentage of the University Park population, their presence is seen on campus each week when students wear their uniforms —Air Force on Tuesdays and Army and Navy on Thursdays.

“They are students and they are also citizen soldiers. We train them to be stewards of the nation. That is something they carry forth at the University level, too,” said Miller, of the Naval ROTC. “When they walk around campus, we hold them to a higher standard. There’s something more to it than just to go to class and get a job. At the end of the day, they are serving our country just like you’d expect of a police officer, fireman or member of Congress.”

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Cadets from all branches of Penn State ROTC stood with heads bowed during a moment of silence honoring all United States Military personnel who had given the ultimate sacrifice for their country during Military Appreciation Day ceremonies at Beaver Stadium.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Beyond their physical presence, students also take on responsibility for one another, just like they will have to do once they graduate and become officers.

“When you’re in ROTC, you realize it’s about each other in a very powerful way. They take responsibility for other people and look out for them. It makes a big place small. It really is that sense of community and caring about each other,” Gaudelius said.

And that responsibility continues after graduation. Many of the military cadre members and government services employees that teach the students were once ROTC students themselves. Cadre members on active duty typically serve a three-year rotation at a Penn State ROTC program and have a range of experience as well.

“Here we’re all diverse with the background that we came from. We all have a different piece of what we’ve done to offer them,” said Jeszenszky. And the education element comes full circle — like many of the cadre from all three programs, she is working on a master’s degree during her Penn State Air Force ROTC rotation.

As a government services employee, Rizzo works with the Army ROTC program on a more permanent basis. He went through an ROTC program as an undergraduate, which he says gave him a lot of guidance. He served as an officer in the Army for seven years before taking a civilian job, although he still serves as a senior brigade intelligence officer for the Army National Guard in Pennsylvania.

“When I walked out the door as a 22-year-old college graduate, I was immediately put in charge of 36 people. How many other jobs can you walk out the door and immediately be in charge of their health, welfare, family, financials? You are responsible for everything,” Rizzo said. “It’s difficult, but it’s recognized. That kind of responsibility being on someone’s shoulders, if someone finds success with it, it’s very valuable.”

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