Most of us have heard of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, aka, ROTC. Whether you know people who joined or have seen signs for it around high school and college campuses, you’re probably aware it’s a program to train college students for future military service.
The Army, Air Force and Navy (including Marine Corps) have ROTC programs at more than 1,100 colleges and universities nationwide.
How Does ROTC Work?
There are a few ways to join: Enroll at the end of your high school career, once you enter college, or join if you’re already enlisted and want to become an officer.
Cadets can earn merit-based scholarships to help pay for tuition. All ROTC books, supplies and equipment are given to students for free, scholarship or not. In return, cadets train for about six hours a week, and it goes like this: Freshmen and sophomores (known as MS1’s and MS2’s, respectively) are still in the learning phase, while juniors and seniors (MS3’s and MS4’s) are focused on leading.
Upon graduation, cadets receive a commission and can choose active-duty service or Reserve or National Guard duty.
All of that “free” is pretty enticing, but it’s not always why students join. Sure, for some cadets, the money is a draw. But for many others, it’s the sense of doing something greater than themselves.
I recently went to the University of Maryland, College Park, to talk with Army ROTC cadets about their experiences. They were from all walks of life, but one thing was universal – they’re smart, they’re ambitious, they’re disciplined, and they’re going places.
Amy Petrocelli, freshman, 18
Major: Government and politics
Petrocelli is the oldest of five kids. The thought of burdening her parents with tons of student debt wasn’t appealing, so she got a four-year ROTC scholarship.
“I have some cousins in the military, and my grandpa was in the Navy. I was always really inspired by the things they did,” she said.
In her first year, Petrocelli’s still learning the basics and getting used to the Army way of life. But the hands-on atmosphere and the help she’s gotten from older, more experienced cadets has been vital. So have the military science classes.
“Last week, I had a test on the equipment of the modern battlefield. I don’t think anyone else [in college] can say they’re learning stuff like that,” she said.
Petrocelli, who’s also an on-campus tour guide, said she loves that ROTC has made her big-university experience a lot smaller.
“ROTC definitely keeps us disciplined and grounded, but we still have the opportunity to branch out and do really cool things at the university,” she said.
One of those cool things: She’s taking an eight-week course in Morocco this summer to learn Arabic.
Liam Guida, junior, 21
Major: Arabic studies
Speaking of Arabic studies… Guida’s current major is a far cry from what he wanted to do as a freshman, which was this: No idea. He initially had no desire to join the military, but when his brother, an enlisted soldier, suggested he try ROTC, he gave it a shot.
The first thing he noticed? Military family members definitely had a leg up in ROTC. So he had to really challenge himself to get squared away — reading a lot, watching YouTube videos and Googling the MANY acronyms the military uses.
“Even still a little bit nowadays, the master sergeant will say, ‘This is when we would set up this [acronym]’ And then on my laptop taking notes, I would have to open up a new tab and type it in,’” the junior said of his self-taught ways.
One thing he loves? The built-in gym time.
“Honestly, I just like the idea of getting paid to work out in the morning,” he joked. “Without ROTC, I’d probably be about 15 pounds heavier.”
Guida, who’s on a two-year scholarship, said he’s happy with his choice to join.
“You get a lot of leadership practice. I just thought it was the right way to go, especially with the career opportunities.”
Soonjin Yim, graduate student (MS3), 26, prior enlisted
Degree: Bachelor’s in biochemistry and molecular biology
Yim’s backstory is interesting. The South Korean native lived much of her life in China but emigrated to the U.S. seven years ago. She tried to become a military officer after college, but since she’s not an American citizen, she couldn’t. So she enlisted as a lab tech instead. Using her GI Bill, she went back to college for her master’s degree and joined ROTC to earn officer status.
“I found a lot of positive things in this environment,” she said of her peers. “No matter what age they are or major they’re doing, or what they’re interested in, they all want to become a leader who inspires others.”
She’s learned a lot about time management, and her English has improved tremendously.
“It was never this good, even when I was in undergrad, because all we talked about was technical-related. … Once I joined the military, people would say things like, ‘You look blue.’ And I thought, ‘What do you mean by blue?’”
Jordan Fox, junior, 21
Major: Russian language and literature & communications
Fox joined to make an impact. You could say she got that idea from her dad, a Marine.
“Stuff that he said about being a part of something bigger than yourself and making contributions that can have a really big impact on your own life as well as other people’s really appealed to me,” she said.
As for choosing a four-year scholarship for the Army and not Marines? She said there was no logic behind it — Army ROTC is just what she found out about first.
“It didn’t even occur to me until I was in that there are other ROTC branches,” she joked.
The training has given her a lot of perspective, and it’s helped her juggle her heavy workload of school, an internship and a job.
“Being in ROTC has shown me what I’m cable of in terms of time management and leadership,” Fox said.
She also likes the perks.
“You’re given almost a pass into this exclusive clubhouse, and you meet all of these cool people and experiences,” she said. “People want to help you.”
Her advice to students struggling with their major or life decisions? Consider ROTC.
“ROTC provides me a purpose. I know what I’m doing and I know why I’m doing it,” she said. “It’s having that ‘Why,’ that’s always there: Why don’t I go out tonight? Why don’t I stay up until 3 in the morning tonight? … Because I’m representing something bigger than myself.”
Joseph Caudill, junior, 20
Major: Mechanical engineering
Caudill joined ROTC the spring semester of his freshman year for a simple reason.
“I wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I joined Army because I think it has the best career opportunities and the best path for me.”
Since he has no immediate family in the military, ROTC was an adjustment.
“It really hit me when I talked to someone who just joined a few weeks ago,” he said. “He was asking questions [about ROTC] that I now thought were second nature.”
Caudill earned a scholarship one year into his ROTC service. He said the best part of his experience has been the people.
“I saw MS3’s and 4’s that really inspired me. I thought the stuff they were doing and opportunities they had were really cool,” he said.
Picture above: University of Maryland ROTC cadets learn leadership and military training during a lab. (Photo by Rachel Blaszkowsky)