Among the 23,634 students at the University of Oregon, around one percent are proudly training for war.
Although Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets blend in when they are among their peers, they stand out on Thursdays when they don their military fatigues. The ROTC is a full-time commitment that demands physical and mental endurance.
Caleb Snyder, a sophomore in the ROTC program, said he often wonders what his life would have been like had he not joined the ROTC. He resents the program sometimes because of the sheer time commitment required of him and fellow cadets. He says it can limit him from doing other activities more typical of a college lifestyle.
“Sometimes I wish I could just live a normal life and be a college student,” Snyder said. “Not shave my face every single day like I have to; not have to spend my weekends not with my girlfriend like I want to and go hiking like I love to do. But at the same time, if I didn’t have the full-ride scholarship to the University of Oregon through the ROTC, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
The primary purpose of the ROTC is to train college students how to be officers in the United States Army. But as many cadets will say, it is much more than that. The ROTC calls for a rigid structure and time commitment that members say is demanding yet rewarding.
“I need the structure,” said Joey Fisher, a junior in the ROTC. “I need deadlines, I need the pressure because if I don’t have it I absolutely would slack off and no one would be holding me accountable.”
When Fisher puts on his uniform in the morning, he says that because most people do not distinguish between the ROTC and the active duty military, he acts with a heightened sense of professionalism out of respect for those who are on duty.
“College and the ROTC don’t always mix well. Waking up at 5:30 in the morning three times a week doesn’t mix well with staying up until 2 a.m. studying,” Fisher said.
Hayley Floyd, a UO junior in the ROTC program, said that the time commitment to ROTC as an upperclassman can be a pain, but she also appreciates the structure it provides to her life.
“When I wasn’t doing ROTC, I kind of felt lost,” Floyd said. “I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. When I got out of class I had work, but when I had free time I was like, ‘What do I do with myself?’ And so ROTC provides that structure.”
Floyd said that she too acts more professional in the uniform; however, while most of the time people are respectful, she notices a slight stigma at UO.
“Especially on this campus — I don’t know how it is at other schools — but we do get weird looks,” Floyd said.
Cadets find the ROTC in a variety of ways. Some enlist in the National Guard out of high school, then enter the program once they enroll in college. Others try the program out of curiosity in college, then sign their contract.
There are many student groups on campus that all have their various codes of conduct. But students in the ROTC are making the ultimate promise to their country, according to Lieutenant Colonel Sharel Pond, head of the ROTC program at UO.
“People know that this is the military,” Pond said, who is also a professor of military science at UO. “While it is serious and the mission is very serious, we want to make it as engaging as possible. As an educator, I want to include every sense I can. So if I have all five senses in their learning environment, then they are going to learn a lot better. It doesn’t have to painful.”
One cornerstone of the ROTC program is the “leadership lab” that takes place every week during the school year. In these labs, cadets are put through drills that mimic aspects of combat situations in order to increase their critical thinking and decision-making skills. These can range from fun team building activities, such as building rope bridges, to more rigorous simulations, such as how to react when under fire by an enemy.
“I want them to be prepared for the worst day they will ever have and pray to God they will never have it,” Pond said.
Pond acknowledges that some labs can be very demanding of students.
“You’re going to come back dirty and tired and sweaty and muddy,” Pond said. “And my experience is that students like those labs just as much because they get to tell their friends what they did. They come back energized because they did something and challenged themselves and learned.”
Pond is also out to change the notion that ROTC is hyper-competitive, composed of purely physical training. She encourages her students to have tough discussion about emotional and psychological issues that might arise in a military environment, like sexual harassment and suicide risk.
“I’m teaching them to look inside themselves to recognize what their biases and stereotypes are and what their leadership style is,” Pond said. “I want them to recognize what gets in their way so they can better lead their soldiers.”
The brawny, aggressive military “dude” is another stereotype that Pond wishes to dispel.
“I want diversity,” Pond said. “I want people of color. I want women. I want everybody that might not think ‘I’m the army guy.’ The army is not about just guys.”
Contracted ROTC cadets receive full-ride scholarships to UO and after graduating have a guaranteed job as an officer in the Army. But cadets recognize that the program gives them more than just financial security.
Snyder relishes the opportunity to wear his camouflage attire because he understands its significance.
“You don’t represent just the ROTC; you represent every single person who has ever worn that uniform,” Snyder said. “That’s what they’re really trying to instill in their programs. Common customs and courtesies, how to wear the uniform, how to act in the uniform — you’re not a civilian in the uniform.”
Although Snyder enlisted out of high school to get in-state tuition to attend UO, he now recognizes how much more the military has shaped him as a person and how much it means to him.
Even more, he is learning that his responsibility is not only to educate himself, but to help build up his fellow cadets.
“It makes you look at things above and beyond yourself rather than, ‘I’m just trying to get through college,’” said Snyder. “I’m trying to make the people around me better.”
Video produced by Emerald videographer Eric Schucht and video editor Kylie Davis.