The echoes of Cornell’s military history ring across our campus.
They ring in the memorials that decorate the West Campus arches, in the awe-inspiring tributes at Anabel Taylor Hall and the plaques at Sibley and the Statler.
They ring in black and white photos of the Arts Quad covered in a “Corps of Cadets,” which existed when all male students had to fulfill a mandatory two-year military training — a mandate that lasted from the University’s founding to 1960, according to the University.
And they ring in current exhibit at the Johnson Museum, which frames Cornell in the context of the first World War, as Cornell is honored as the university that sent the most commissioned officers during the war — moreso even than West Point.
But the heart of Cornell’s military tradition lies not in memorials or museum pieces, but in the current students who further it. To find that heart, one need look no further than Barton Hall.
Once a New York State Armory and World War I airplane hangar, the building is now the current base for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, where one can often find uniformed men and women training, learning, leading and continuing Cornell’s rich military legacy.
The Military Experience
For part of their time as students, ROTC cadets and midshipmen spend 10 hours each week in Barton Hall and around the Ithaca area training both physically and mentally in military academics and leadership.
For Air Force Cadet John Pedro ’17, ROTC is no ordinary college experience.
“The stereotype of a college students is rolling out of bed at 10 a.m. and running to make their first class,” he said, “At 10 a.m., the average ROTC student has already worked out once or twice that day and been up for four hours. It’s a different mindset to get adjusted to.”
In addition to physical training, students are enrolled in specific academic classes depending on their branch, such as Basic Orienteering for the Army, the Evolution of USAF Air and Space Power for the Air Force, and Seapower and Maritime Affairs for the Navy, according to Cornell’s Air-Force, Navy and Military ROTC websites.
Lieutenant Marijke de Jongh, who teaches some of these classes in the naval units, commented on one of the upper-level courses in the Navy called Leadership and Ethics. The class studies the ethics behind decisions and helps students recognize their own biases and ethics, as well as how they will combine those personal ethics with the Navy’s code, she said.
“[The class] really helps build that moral fiber within our students,” she said.
A Balancing Act
At Cornell, students have the opportunity to be at the only Ivy-League institution to retain all three branches of service, and unlike in military academies where military training takes place 24/7, outside of the program, ROTC students get the chance to live, for the most part, a full college experience.
“We all get world-class educations, and I have friends from all over the world here,” Pedro said. “I have friends that are going to go into tech, friends that want to be musicians and artists, lawyers, doctors, engineers. You don’t get that at an academy. That exposure is just amazing.”
Many ROTC students also take part in a wide variety of extracurriculars on campus, such as writing for the Cornell Review, cheering on and being a part of various sports teams, having leadership positions in co-op houses, or running for positions on Student Assembly.
De Jongh, who also advises freshmen midshipman in the Naval unit, expressed how, along with teaching Naval classes and helping students meet their physical fitness goals, one of the things she offers is to help students improve on their time-management.
“Sometimes students and I will actually sit down in an informal way and go through their schedule hour by hour,” she said.
Midshipman James ‘Jimmy’ Putko ’19, a sophomore in the Naval unit who was also on varsity soccer freshman year, remarked how sometimes balancing both academics, extracurriculars and military training was difficult. In one instance, for example, he got back at 3 a.m. from a soccer tournament, went to physical training at 5 a.m., went to classes, and then went to soccer practice afterwards.
The ROTC Experience
For the students in the ROTC program, the intense physical and mental training is not salient to their military experience, but it also carries over into their academic careers
“Sometimes when we’re going through a difficult workout, a staff member will remind us that this mental toughness, pushing through these difficult sets of pushups also carries to the academic part of your life,” Putko said.
Army Cadet Charlotte Levine ’17 added that there was overlap between the skills and situations she has learned in her training that helped her throughout her college experience.
“There are a lot of situations where I’m head in a group project or another club on campus, where we have imperfect information or I’m dealing with a time crunch, ” she said. “There are just stressful factors all around. People around me kind of freak out a little bit, but I’m able to maintain a cool, level head, because I’ve been through worse.”
The Naval ROTC goal, as stated on their website, is to develop midshipmen in three areas: morally, mentally and physically. According to de Jongh, there is a reason the physical aspect is mentioned third.
“The physical component is absolutely critical, but on the flip side you need to morally lead a group of men and women and mentally handle the stresses of the job,” she said. “Our job is to prepare people in all three aspects and to really help them grow into effective leaders.”
Putko added that, contrary to possible stereotypes, developing military skills went beyond physical training.
“The purpose of the military is to carry out national security, but that involves a lot of coordinating and emailing and meetings,” he said. “It’s not just walking around with guns and having superhuman strength.”
For Pedro, the military is “all about people.”
“As a leader, it’s all about how can you help your people be the best, do the best, learn the best,” he said. “That ‘people’ aspect of our ROTC training really helps with the stressors that come with it.”
Pedro added that the best part of Cornell’s experience is the comradery.
“I didn’t have a sister, there’s one cadet [who is] like my sister,” Pedro said. “There’s another cadet who is my very best friend on this very earth that I trust with everything. The people I went through ROTC with, there’s a bond beyond what your normal friends are sometimes because you have such a shared experience and a common sense of purpose.”
For Levine, this comradery spans not only Cornell’s campus, but across the nation.
“The friendships I’ve made have just been incredible,” she said. “Not just on Cornell’s campus — I’ve done training that [has] brought together cadets from all across the country. ROTC does a really incredible job about bringing people together from a lot of diverse backgrounds that I otherwise would have never met.”
As seniors Pedro and Levine prepare to graduate the program and go on to active service, they reflected on the time from when they first put on their uniforms to now.
“It was exciting — I remember putting on that uniform and I looked in the mirror and I was very proud,” said Pedro, who will be an intelligence officer in the Air Force post-graduation. “In the next few years, I hope to serve my country, whether in or out of uniform, wherever my capacity to do so is best. That’s my goal.”
Levine will be going to Georgia to train in both the Armor Basic Officer Leadership Course and Army Reconnaissance Course, with hopes of eventually going to Ranger School — one of the the “toughest training courses for which a soldier can volunteer,” according to its website.
“I remember looking in the mirror and seeing myself in the uniform for the first time, and it’s definitely significant,” she said. “Your uniform says the ‘U.S. Army,’ and your name. There’s something about representing your country and wearing the flag on your shoulder that means so much.”