WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- More than 300 Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets, representing more than a dozen colleges and universities, gathered Tuesday at Howard University in Washington, D.C. for the Army Senior Leader/ROTC Professional Mentor Forum.

During the event, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning provided keynote remarks and took questions from cadets on subjects ranging from leadership, the value of diversity, and the critical role ROTC cadets play as ambassadors to bridge the civilian-military divide.

"The Army is a people-based organization," Fanning told cadets. "I've seen how people are the strength of our Army. And the Army's people cannot accomplish their many missions without strong and steady leadership -- which is where each of you comes in."

For the Army to accomplish all that the America public expects of it, Army leaders must harness the power of diverse teams, Fanning urged.

"We need experience, critical thinking and creativity in our force, but most importantly, we need teams of people who think differently from one another and yet are connected through unity of mission," he said.

According to Fanning, multiple studies have demonstrated that teams with a diversity of races, genders, religions and backgrounds perform better and deliver better outcomes.

"The verdict is in," Fanning said. "For the Army of tomorrow to be as strong as the Army of today, we must ... draw further from one of America's greatest advantages: our diverse population."

Historically, senior officers in the Army have risen to their positions through the combat arms branches. That means, Fanning said, that a diverse leadership must rely on achieving diversity across all branches, not just in raw numbers within the Army.

"I really want to come here today to challenge some of these cadets to think a little bit more broadly about what branches they might consider and what branches they might enter," Fanning said.

A MENTOR FORUM

The night marked the third year for the forum at Howard University, and the third year that attendance has increased, both in terms of the numbers of cadets and schools represented.

During a 90-minute panel discussion and question-and-answer session involving more than a dozen general officers, Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams, commander of the Combined Armed Services Command at Fort Lee, Virginia fielded questions from cadets.

He said the event made him recall his cadet days at Hampton Institute, which today is known as Hampton University.

"I really do believe that senior Army leadership engagement with the cadets, [who are] soon to be the lieutenants and officers of our future, is a very powerful engagement" he said. "Hopefully we'll have an impact on many of them and their diction to enter the military."

Lt. Gen. Robert S. Ferrell, the Army's chief information officer and G-6, was instrumental in organizing the event in years past, getting it off the ground as a forum where young ROTC cadets could interact with senior Army leadership.

The focus of the event, he said, is to provide outreach to schools and ROTC cadets and share insights and information on Army life, issues, and policies.

"[ROTC cadets] come here, and they can ask any questions they have about information presented to them throughout the year," Ferrell said. "And this is a good opportunity to socialize, network, and share feedback about what the Army life is really about."

ROTC Cadet Gartrell Anderson, a senior at East Carolina University, North Carolina is a criminal justice major. He said his own participation in ROTC has provided structure. He plans to go into the Military Police Corps when he joins the Army.

"[ROTC has] given me ... a lot of time to actually think about what I want to do with my future," he said.

ROTC Cadet Trevon Johnson, a senior at Norfolk State University, Virginia, who is majoring in sociology, said he is interested in the National Guard and the Signal Corps. He would like to do military intelligence and cyber security.

He was taking advantage of the rare opportunity provided by the event to shake hands and speak with Army general officers and practice his networking skills.

"It can be hard to communicate with people in the military," he said. "But being here has definitely broken my shell, and I've been able to talk to higher ranking officials. A lot of these officers have been in my shoes. They've done what I've done. They've been to the schools I've been to. And they've done what I want to do."