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Transforming Today’s Cadets into Tomorrow’s Leaders

Six months before he returned home from serving an LDS mission, Tyler Meidell started thinking about what his next steps in life should be. Through his mission experience, he had discovered a passion for serving and leading others, and he wanted to pursue that course when he came home.

“I had a strong desire to be a good leader,” says Meidell, now a senior in accounting at BYU Marriott. “I had heard my dad talk about how the military—and especially the ROTC—is a great place to develop leaders, so I decided to explore my options there.”

ROTC officers on campus

Meidell’s father had gone through the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program and then flown Apache helicopters for six years before leaving the service when Meidell was a toddler. “I was young when he got out,” Meidell says, “so I wasn’t familiar with the military life and never had any intention of going the ROTC route. But when I came home focused on developing my leadership skills and abilities, that’s where I looked.”

His first semester at BYU, Meidell got involved in the Army ROTC program and was immediately impressed with the caliber of people he met and the experiences he had. He’d found what he was looking for. Now a platoon leader at BYU, Meidell finished cadet training at Fort Knox this past summer, where he was ranked in the top fifteen of his platoon.

“This is exactly the kind of experience I was looking for when I chose BYU’s ROTC program,” Meidell notes. “I had been told it was one of the best leadership development opportunities around, and that’s definitely been the case.”

Character Building

Through the years, BYU’s ROTC program has built a reputation as one of the strongest in the nation, regularly emerging among the top performers when competing in the Ranger Challenge and other competitions, such as honor guard, drill team, and Sandhurst. In addition, on a consistent basis, approximately 50 percent of BYU’s graduating cadets rank in the top 30 percent of graduating cadets nationwide.

Just this year, the US Army Cadet Command awarded BYU’s Army ROTC unit with the MacArthur Award, an honor given annually to the top programs in eight different regions. The schools are selected from among the 275 senior Army ROTC units nationwide and are recognized for their ideals of “duty, honor, and country.”

Three men in uniform on rocky terrain

Those ideals line up perfectly with the values that BYU students bring with them to the program, says Army Lt. Col. Chip Cook, a professor of military science and director of the Army ROTC battalion. “In my opinion, our cadets are head and shoulders above the rest because they are already committed to those values,” he says. “In fact, our cadets are often committed to an even higher set of standards because of their upbringing in the gospel. We don’t have to try to convince them to follow certain standards, because they are already living them.”

Air Force Major Benjamin Snell, an aerospace studies instructor and assistant director of the Air Force ROTC detachment, agrees. “Our mission is to develop cadets of character into leaders with honor,” he says. “The cadets here are outstanding to begin with. We provide experiences that help them become even better, so that when they raise their hand to the square during their commissioning, they have a sense of duty and patriotism, a greater understanding of leadership principles.”

Preparing to Lead

The ROTC program is one of three pathways that individuals can follow to become commissioned officers in the US military (the other two are service academies and officer candidate schools), and it is the largest source of officers during times of peace. One of the largest in the nation, BYU’s ROTC program includes both Army and Air Force battalions; both units also include students from Utah Valley University, the Army program also includes students from Southern Utah University.

Coursework for Army and Air Force units is similar: freshmen sign up for a one-hour physical training class that meets three times a week, as well as an introductory course that includes a weekly one-hour session of classroom instruction and a three-hour leadership lab. That course load continues through the sophomore, junior, and senior years but intensifies as students advance through the program, shoulder added responsibility, accept a variety of leadership assignments, and become increasingly involved in program activities.

BYU ROTC students rowing a boat on a lake in full gear

“In the ROTC program, not only do you get countless opportunities to show you can lead, but afterwards you receive invaluable feedback from others—both those who have done the same thing you are doing as well as those you led,” says Stephen Bohn, a sociology junior in the Air Force program. “And while it can be uncomfortable to put yourself out there when you may not know exactly what to do, the opportunity to figure it out for yourself and then learn how to improve and do better is amazing.

“The ROTC provides a place for you to learn to lead when consequences are small so that eventually you’re prepared to lead when

the consequences are big,” he continues. “I’m looking forward to sharing what I’ve already learned in my time here and helping others get to where I’m at. At the same time, I’m learning from those above me, so I can get where they are.”

Immediate Camaraderie

The number of students involved in the program varies from year to year, but on average, both programs have more than one hundred cadets. The freshman class is the largest, as incoming students are encouraged to experience the program and become familiar with the expectations and commitments before they decide whether to continue in the program.

Becoming familiar with the program was both daunting and exciting for Cathryn Emily Guzzwell, a senior majoring in sociology. “I didn’t know much about the program at all,” says Rollins. “In fact, at my high school graduation, the principal had everyone stand up who was planning on going into the armed forces. I leaned over to my friend and said, ‘I would never do that.’ Two months later, I had signed up with the National Guard.”

That change of heart came from Guzzwell’s desire to be pushed out of her comfort zone. She began her service in the National Guard and started attending BYU–Idaho before deciding to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Upon her return, she realized that she wanted to become an officer. “As enlisted personnel, you work hard to accomplish a mission, but in the end, it’s the officer who is making the decisions,” she explains. “I love the idea of changing something for the better and helping an organization work more efficiently. I was also drawn in by the possibilities of serving others, and I realized that I could do that best as an officer.”

When Guzzwell transferred to BYU, she looked into the ROTC program. “I was super nervous,” she admits. “One of the biggest things that almost stopped me from joining was fear. I’ve always been afraid of trying out for things—sports teams, choir, musicals, whatever. I was afraid of doing this, but other than serving my mission, this is the best decision I’ve made in my life so far. I’ve learned never to let fear of the unknown stop you from doing what you want.”

One of the things that helped Guzzwell overcome her fear was the almost immediate camaraderie she felt upon entering the program. “Incoming cadets are divided into cohorts, so from day one, you have fifteen to twenty instant friends who are there to support you and who are invested in your success as a student, cadet, and future officer,” says Cook. “In addition, older cadets are assigned to lead these groups in various capacities as well. And as they get more involved in the program, our cadets find an incredible support system.”

In fact, overseeing and helping incoming cadets is one of the first assigned leadership responsibilities in the program. “We encourage our leaders to be right there for the first-year cadets, asking them how they can help and what they can do,” says Cook. “They become friends. That’s one of the key aspects of leadership: caring about your people and motivating them to do challenging things.”
As the cadets meet together in their classroom instruction, leadership labs, and physical training, their relationships fortify. The labs are particularly designed to help cadets get to know each other better. “In the labs, students learn how to work as a team and have opportunities to enhance their leadership abilities,” Cook says. In the Army program, much of the lab training involves using paintball or airsoft weapons while conducting squad- and patrol-size missions. These missions include reconnaissance, ambushes, and raids and also make use of land navigation and first-aid skills.

On the Air Force side, the labs typically cover a wide variety of topics. “We have guest speakers come from across the nation,” explains Snell. “They are experts in their field and cover everything from health and wellness to the different career opportunities available.”

The Degree and Beyond

While the ROTC program is designed to be demanding and transformative, cadets are encouraged to focus on their primary objective: earning their degrees. “Our cadets are involved in a wide range of colleges and programs,” observes Cook. “We have students involved from BYU Marriott majors, but we also have students studying languages, sciences, the arts. We probably have students in just about every college on campus.”

In many instances, significant financial assistance and scholarships are available, sometimes even before a cadet has committed to the program. As cadets progress through the program and sign on the dotted line, they become eligible for scholarships to cover things like tuition, room, board, books, and living expenses.

Upon graduation, ROTC cadets become commissioned officers in the US military, entering as second lieutenants and usually signing an agreement to serve for at least four years of active duty, although sometimes National Guard and Reserve commitments are also available. Cadets can pursue a wide range of careers based on their aptitude and interest. Meidell’s first choice of service is as an infantry officer, while Bohn hopes to work as a personnel officer and Guzzwell plans on working in hospital administration.

Guzzwell’s time with the ROTC has changed not just her future career but also the way she will live her life moving forward. “When I joined the military, I learned that it’s not all about me,” says Guzzwell, who grew up as the only girl in a family of four brothers. “I never realized how spoiled I was, but when you’re in the military, you learn pretty quickly that it’s not about what you want to do. It’s about helping the organization and the people you are with to be successful. It’s completely changed me.

“The ROTC’s focus on teaching leadership skills has given me confidence that I didn’t have before, even in difficult situations,” she continues. “I know that I can make good decisions under pressure, that I can work with other people, that I can do hard things. And that confidence helps me in every aspect of my life, not just in the military. I’ll be a better wife, a better mother, a better person because of my ROTC experience.”

Suits and Fatigues

BYU’s Air Force ROTC was instituted on 18 September 1947; four years later, the BYU unit became a detachment. The Army joined the ROTC program on 29 April 1968. That same year a building was constructed specifically for the ROTC program; the Daniel H. Wells ROTC Building was dedicated in October 1968.

Extracurricular activities at that time included a drill team, rifle marksmanship team, color guard, and the sponsor corps. At various times, ROTC choirs, bands, and ranger companies have also been organized.

ROTC cadet filling up another cadets water jug

Currently the BYU ROTC program is part of the BYU Marriott School of Business, which makes perfect sense, says Army Lt. Col. Chip Cook, who graduated from the school’s Executive MBA program in August 2018. “BYU Marriott is dedicated to building leaders of business, and the ROTC is dedicated to building leaders of the military,” he says. “We share the same mission—our leaders just end up working in different spaces.”


By Kellene Ricks Adams
Photography courtesy of BYU ROTC and BYU Photo

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