Cal Poly Army ROTC cadets moving towards their objective rally point during a field training exercise at Camp Roberts in Spring 2017. BRENDAN MATSUYAMA | MUSTANG NEWS

United States Army 2nd Lt. Katherine Holst is currently attending the Field Artillery Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Sill, Oklahoma to prepare her to a lead a platoon of 30-40 soldiers within the 82nd Airborne Division. Holst, a biological sciences graduate, commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army last spring through Cal Poly’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program and will serve as a field artillery officer for at least five years.

Holst’s role will involve leading a platoon that “send[s] indirect fire down range” as part of a larger artillery battery and ensuring all necessary tasks are completed. 

Army ROTC is one of several paths an individual can take to earn a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army and prepares students to lead soldiers after graduation.

Cal Poly’s Army ROTC program has existed since the 1950s and has commissioned more than 1,300 officers into the United States Army, Army Reserve and National Guard. Cadets are enrolled in typical college courses, but they participate in additional military science courses as well as on-campus training.

Graphic by Marie Lelue

Holst’s beginnings in ROTC

Holst was involved in Cal Poly’s Army ROTC program since she was a military science first-year (MS1) and grew as a mentor, leader and individual throughout those years. Holst said she felt “pretty damn proud” to wear her uniform.

Before commissioning, Holst was a military science fourth-year (MS4) and held the position of Observer, Trainer, Mentor (OTM) and Cadet Major. Holst could often be found in her office inside of the ROTC building with a couple of her trainees keeping her company. While Holst had undoubtedly found her place in ROTC, she started off as a rookie in the program just like everyone else.

According to Holst, entering the ROTC program felt like  “a completely different world, almost like a foreign culture” because of unfamiliar traditions, acronyms and ways of thinking. She compared her first day of MS1 physical training to showing up to a situation like line dancing for the first time. While everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, it was a struggle for Holst to pick up on the unfamiliar moves.

Graphic by Marie Leleu

The cadets stood in formation and performed certain exercises on command. The introduction to a new subculture was overwhelming at first, even with friendly guidance from her fellow cadets.

During Holst’s MS1 four-day spring training, she executed tasks in the field for the first time. She quickly felt the effects of the lack of sleep, cold nights and heavy equipment she had to carry. However, Holst “saw the bigger picture” of the program. This opened her eyes to the potential that ROTC had and could bring out of her. 

 Video by Jessi Armstrong

Being a leader in ROTC

A typical week in the program as an MS4 for Holst consisted of planning the training for underclassmen (MS1s and MS2s). She collaborated with the instructors, called cadre, to put training objectives into action. The training focused on “leadership labs” and physical training.

“Mental and physical fitness and training are incredibly connected,”  Holst said. “But everything comes down to being a mental challenge at the end.”

Holst described pain as unavoidable, but bearable with the right mentality. Running multiple miles will always “suck,” but perseverance is key, according to Holst. She and the other cadre understood that newer cadets needed time and practice to learn and acquire skills and they were dedicated to helping the cadets progress through the program.

Although there is a formal mentorship program where more experienced cadets are assigned to newer cadets, Holst thinks that all older cadets try to teach and lead by example. Holst enjoys working with the underclassmen and teaching them the ins and outs of ROTC. Her role goes further than ordering people around. It is ultimately about taking care of them.

“Your soldiers are your responsibility all of the time,” Holst said.

The Army ROTC program upholds several values, including discipline. Holst stresses the importance of having time management skills to succeed in not only ROTC and school, but also in self-care — sleeping, eating and socializing.

“If I’m going to sit down and study, I sit down and study,” she said. “I’m focused completely on that task.”

As the time commitment increases as cadets advance in the program, Holst gradually figured out how to handle responsibilities as a higher level cadet.

Leadership is another crucial value within Army ROTC. A great emphasis is placed on what it means to be a strong leader; members are constantly learning leadership skills and being mentored by more experienced cadets and cadre.

“In order to lead from the front, you need to exemplify [those values],” Holst said. “You can teach skills. But to teach someone how to lead from example, how to get to know people, how to work with people and figure out how to lead people is really tricky.”  

To learn more about Cal Poly’s ROTC program, you can visit their department located in Walter F. Dexter Building (34) and their website at

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