For students in Penn’s NROTC program, training a test of skills, endurance
Penn has had particularly strong relationship with ROTC over the years
April 10, 2012, 10:43 pm·
Sophia Ciocca | DP
It’s 6:15 a.m. on a chilly Wednesday, and campus is eerily quiet, most people still sound asleep. It’s quite a different story, however, for the students doing push-ups in the middle of Franklin Field.
“Forty flutter kicks! Go!”
At the command of physical training instructor Sgt. Robert Boyles, the Penn Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps runs around the track and completes a grueling workout full of crunches, squats and lunges. Next, most will head to Naval Science class or help raise the flag outside if they’re on colors duty.
And after that, they go to their other classes and spend the rest of the day as regular Penn students — except because Wednesday is “active day,” they’ll be wearing their uniforms.
A Demanding Schedule
Housed on the fourth floor of the Hollenback Center on 3000 South Street, Penn’s NROTC unit — one of about 60 units nationwide — is unique in that it serves as a satellite campus for NROTC in Philadelphia. Along with 14 Penn participants, around 65 students from Drexel and Temple universities commute to Penn to take part in training and classes, spending about 12 hours per week on Penn’s campus.
All NROTC students take Introduction to Naval Science, as well as courses in military history, navigation and leadership. Additionally, Marine Corps students are required to fulfill additional academic requirements, said Lt. James Giles, who runs the NROTC physical training program and serves as a freshman adviser.
While required for the NROTC program, these classes are open to any student at Penn.
College senior and NROTC member Amanda Kate Spaeder said that in these classes, the students analyze different military situations, playing devil’s advocate to understand the outcomes.
“If it’s a very time-pressing issue, you want to have a pretty fair idea of every level of your own morality and naval function and international law,” Spaeder said. “That way, you know how to make a split-second decision.”
While naval science classes appear on NROTC students’ college transcripts, most do not count as school credits. Spaeder finds this policy “frustrating,” but she said that NROTC is trying to gain credit value for these classes as Penn is in the process of applying for reaccreditation.
According to Giles, Penn NROTC wants about 85 percent of its students to be engineers. Even students who study liberal arts must take two semesters of physics and two semesters of calculus as part of the program.
Because of the NROTC’s rigorous selection standards, the process of joining the program begins early in the college admissions cycle.
Students apply for an NROTC scholarship the summer before their senior year of high school and can only accept it after being given admission to the college of their choice. Two weeks prior to the start of college, selected students attend orientation, which involves “five days of military boot camp-style living,” Giles said.
Finding Balance, Forming Bonds
During his senior year of high school, Engineering sophomore Keelen Collins decided to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and apply for an NROTC scholarship — something his parents were comfortable with despite not being a “military family.”
“One of the major attracting factors for me is wanting to better myself, and wanting to do something I find important,” he said. “It’s kind of boring to live a regular life.”
He added that the full college scholarship provided by the NROTC — as well as a monthly $300 stipend at Penn — was an extra incentive to join.
Once they arrive at Penn, NROTC students begin training right away — a transition that Giles believes can be challenging.
“They’re waking up earlier than they ever have before, and on top of that they’re brand new college students trying to acclimate to the environment,” he said. “The schedule is the most difficult.”
While most students eventually find a way to strike a balance between their NROTC responsibilities and regular college life, the schedule doesn’t get any easier, Collins said.
Because most activities and group work sessions tend to be scheduled late at night, Collins gets an average of five hours of sleep per night before he has to wake up for physical training.
Nevertheless, Collins believes that being in NROTC has taught him valuable lessons about time management.
“So many people waste so much time,” he said. “Relaxing is almost inherently stressful to me because I know there’s something I need to be doing.”
In addition to physical training and classes, all midshipmen have the opportunity to hold a leadership position in the unit, Giles said. As a commanding officer, Spaeder oversees the day-to-day operations of the battalion. She also serves as the line of communication between the rest of the midshipmen and the unit staff.
While peer leadership can be difficult, Spaeder believes that her relationships with other students “come down to mutual respect.”
For Collins, getting to know other members of his unit — especially those from Drexel and Temple universities — has been a rewarding part of his experience.
“You’re going through a lot together and it naturally brings you closer,” he said.
A Tradition of Service
While the University’s history of military involvement dates back to the service 1752 Penn graduate Samuel Nicholas — who became the United States’ first Marine commandant — it wasn’t until 1940 that Penn established its first ROTC unit under then-University President Thomas Gates.
According to Giles, the unit’s first class of 16 midshipmen eventually grew to 900 people during World War II. At one point, the influx of recruits into the program prompted Penn to convert the Palestra into a dining hall exclusively for NROTC.
Amid Vietnam War protests, the 1960s saw the shutdown of most Ivy League ROTC programs. But Penn’s remained open throughout the decades, at one point including students from more than 22 schools in the Philadelphia area.
More recently, Congress’s 2010 repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy barring LGBT individuals from serving openly in the armed forces has caused some universities to rethink their stance on NROTC. Columbia, Yale and Harvard universities all reinstated the programs on their campuses last year.
At Penn, however, NROTC has maintained a “fantastic relationship with the school” over the years, Giles said. Spaeder added that the program is working with the Undergraduate Assembly to make students more aware about NROTC so “we can really contribute to the Penn community.”
Planning for the Future
After graduation, Penn’s NROTC students can be assigned to serve anywhere in the world. A student’s position — whether as a surface warfare officer, aviator, submariner or a Marine — is determined mostly by school GPA, as well as military GPA and physical fitness scores, Giles said.
During their senior year of college, NROTC students are ranked against all other midshipmen across the nation to determine where they will serve, Spaeder said.
Once NROTC recruits complete the mandatory five years of service, they can choose to re-sign or go into the naval reserves, Giles said. About 40 percent remain past their initial commitment.
Spaeder has been selected to serve as a naval flight officer after graduation. After attending flight school for three years and completing six years of mandatory service, she hopes to use her language skills as a hispanic studies major to serve as a military diplomat in Latin America.
At the end of the day, she feels that her time in NROTC has given her a level of maturity that other Penn students may not have.
“It is a pretty mind-blowing thing to have to think so far down the road,” she said. “You get the perspective that you’re not always just an individual, [but] part of something bigger and more important than you. It’s hard, but it’s motivating.”