Heads turn in unison. A march turns into a jog, and so begins the morning run of the Cal Poly Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). This same scenario is repeated by all 64 members of ROTC three times a week.
Video by Camila Corcuera
The mission of the ROTC program is “to commission the future officer leadership of the [United States] Army and motivate young people to become better citizens,” according to the Cal Poly ROTC website.
The website also reads that in the more than 66 years Cal Poly has had an ROTC program, they have helped students enter into 17 different branches of the U.S. Army. More than 1,300 officers from Cal Poly have been commissioned into the U.S. Army, Army Reserve and National Guard.
ROTC is designed for students looking to pursue a career with the Army after finishing their schooling. Students who would like to get an education before enlisting— partially or fully paid for by the Army — sign a contract that binds them to six to eight years of service once school is completed. After deciding the branch of the Army they would like to pursue, students are able to take classes to specifically train them in that field.
ROTC students, otherwise known as the Fighting Mustang Battalion, are required to attend physical training, group meetings and activities and maintain a 2.5 GPA throughout their years at Cal Poly.
The program takes the place of basic training typically completed by going straight into the military. ROTC members come out of college as second lieutenants, a position soldiers otherwise work for years to achieve. ROTC graduate students enter service as a captain.
More Than Just Training
ROTC member and civil engineering senior David Broyles said he no longer stresses about the pressures of school like he did freshman year. Broyles said ROTC gave him an outlook that enables him to push forward regardless of the challenges he faces each day.
Broyles said physical activity grounds him most. He uses it when he is stressed or needs a pick-me-up, and now he said he even enjoys those early morning workouts. Physical training for ROTC can include a variety of workouts, ranging from running and circuit routines to lifting weights.
This quarter, Broyles became Battalion Commander. He said he is also working on his senior project and picked up club bowling with his friends. This is a lot to fit into one person’s schedule, and Broyles stressed the importance of time management.
“I really liked that leadership style and being able to delegate but also know what’s going on that comes with Battalion Commander,” Broyles said. “I’m responsible for the successes and failures of the Fighting Mustang Battalion.”
ROTC member and animal science junior Emily Schube said she wanted the ROTC college lifestyle before going into service. After testing out the program her freshman year of Cal Poly, she decided she would commit to a contract to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian for the Army.
The ROTC program involves an additional application on top of being accepted to Cal Poly. Students will apply for a scholarship through ROTC, who will then pay for some or all of their education in turn for their contract to serve in the Army upon graduation. Cadets maintain an academic major on top of the responsibilities that come with being a part of ROTC.
“Discipline is big,” Schube said. “But even outside, dealing with professors [and] time management, ROTC has helped me gain those skills.”
However, Schube said the stress of juggling a job, ROTC and her animal science major is sometimes overwhelming.
“It’s definitely hard to juggle everything, but everyone in the program will work with you,” Schube said. “There are times where I have a midterm tomorrow and I’m not ready, but I can ask if it’s okay if I don’t show up to PT or I leave early to study a little bit. Everyone is fine with that.”
Broyles and Schube both said building up the team in each and every activity is very important. Cadets keep each other accountable for physical fitness, attending class, studying, maintaining a certain GPA and taking care of their mental health.
Each career track that a student chooses to take comes with different classes leading to a variation of responsibilities, but it all circles around a common goal.
“The goal is service to your country, and it comes out again in different ways,” Broyles said. “There are always different dynamics and different experiences that join with your group, and you all get developed by each other. That’s where I’ve learned almost the most, going through struggles with them, but we have a common goal that really makes the ROTC program, especially here at Cal Poly.”
Mental Health in the Military
Preparation for a career in the military goes beyond physical training. Mental health is a growing issue in the line of work.
Suicide rates have been on the rise, as reported in the 2018 Pentagon Report. From 2013 to 2018, the suicide rate rose 6.1 percent, and 541 service members died from suicide in 2018, 325 of which were active-duty troops.
“In the army, there are unfortunately high cases of suicide, but I think it’s great that every year we do a refresher on what the signs of depression look like, what you should look out for and what you should do in certain situations,” Schube said. “Especially as a college student, I think it’s important to be aware of that and what to do.”
Schube said mental health reminders are touched upon in most courses. Awareness is worked into the material as it applies, making sure that all cadets are aware of the heightened risk due to the elevated stress they are under.
Members of the ROTC program work long days with little time to themselves, as noted by Schube and Broyles. A report from the Center of Collegiate Mental Health shows that anxiety and depression are the top two reasons college students seek counseling. On average, one in five college students have either anxiety or depression.
“My peers are my biggest motivator,” Schube said. “We push each other, we’re extremely competitive and we’re all friends. We’ve formed our solid group, and we’re not gonna let each other fail.”
Mentorship is a large part of the ROTC program as well, linking juniors and seniors with freshmen and sophomores. Cadres, or graduated cadets, are also linked with those still enrolled. Mentors are available to guide new cadets through the process of choosing a track, working on time management and anything else along the way.
“I have some mentors I really look up to and I respect,” Schube said. “I probably wouldn’t continue in this program if I didn’t have them.”
Almost moving out to the field can be an intimidating thought, but Broyles said he turns to his mentors in times of doubt.
“[Cadres] lead us with different experiences under their belt,” Broyles said.
Additional ROTC Resources
The Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) training is another resource required by ROTC to ensure the wellbeing of its members outside of their career track.
Equal Opportunity (EO) training is also mandatory, aiming to help foster an inclusive, safe environment for all cadets. This training is across the board for the Army.
Resources for ROTC students are not limited to the program. The Veterans Success Center (VSC), a resource for military-linked students across campus, creates another resource for cadets. While the VSC is not solely for ROTC, they are always welcome for ROTC students who need a space to hang out, connect with other military students or seek resources for any part of their life.
“We want to provide a space to build a community for these students,” VSC Coordinator Kari Leslie said.