The Army doesn’t track the reasons students join, but officials said the motivations that Virginia Tech students cite are reflected nationally.
At Old Dominion University, Army ROTC leaders credit their more than 200 percent growth over six years to school administrators who provided more funds for scholarships and staff and cultivated a campus culture that values and supports the ROTC, said Lt. Col. Brian Kerns, who oversees Army ROTC.
Over the past decade, ROTC leaders have made an effort to better communicate with their host colleges, Kerns said. And, in turn, the academics have come to see the ROTC as a program that can help recruit and retain students as well as push them to attend classes and keep up with their studies and graduate on time.
“My experience in Iraq helps me here on campus. Not in combat, but in understanding different cultures,” said Kerns, who was named “employee of the month” by ODU’s president. “As Army officers, we have to be open-minded about the campus culture.”
The role of the economic recession can’t be ignored. But it’s not just the promises of scholarships and post-graduation jobs that entice students, said Lt. Col. Christopher P. Talcott of Texas Christian University, which has seen the most growth of any school in recent years. TCU’s Army ROTC enrollment increased more than 280 percent in six years.
“The money might be attractive at the beginning, especially for parents, but I’m telling you: With the hours we have them doing stuff, that scholarship goes quickly,” Talcott said. “It has to be something more keeping them here.”
Harvard Business Review devoted much of its November 2010 issue to leadership lessons from the military, bringing corporate respect to experience that veterans or ROTC graduates can bring to the private sector. Some ROTC leaders think the message stuck and made it easier for them to push their students for top internships, fellowships, jobs at the State Department or admission to medical, law or business schools.
At Virginia Tech, it’s not just the Army ROTC that has seen growth. The school also has higher enrollment in a citizen leader program, which makes up about 20 percent of the Corps of Cadets. These students are treated no differently than ROTC members. They live together in the university’s historic upper quad and dress in uniform.
This year’s corps — which includes all the service ROTCs — started the school year with 1,066 cadets, the largest it has been since 1968. For the first time in years, cadets filled all of the rooms in the four residence halls on the upper quad, sometimes temporarily having to go three to a room made for two.
Virginia Tech has strong roots as a military training ground, and the centerpiece of campus is a historic drill field. Today it is one of six senior military schools, a list that includes Texas A&M and the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. And although the school has long had a high commission rate, it often had difficulty in recent decades filling the Corps of Cadets. In the 1990s, an alumni group started a “1000 in 2000” campaign to get the number of cadets over 1,000 by the millennium. It failed.
The newest cadets gave varying reasons for joining — and for sticking around past “red phase,” the first and most intense wave of training.
“It’s getting harder and harder to get a job, and it’s getting harder and harder to get into the military,” said Frank Gradzki, 18, of New Jersey. “It’s always a job that’s going to be there.”
Natasha Laramie, 18, of Sterling joined the Army ROTC because she thinks it will help her work for the State Department eventually. She picked Virginia Tech because the corps allows her to get a full military school experience and leadership training but she can still attend a major state school and get the typical college experience.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle change. I usually don’t get up at 4 a.m. to go running,” Laramie said as she walked to her dorm room with a care package from her boyfriend. “My mom was a little worried at first . . . but she knows this sets me up really well for the future.”