WASHINGTON -- When the Army Senior Leader Forum began four years ago, Cadet Karriem Davis was a freshman, new to Howard University's ROTC program. Ever since, the forums have allowed him to learn more about the Army by picking the brains of some of its top leaders.

Meant to produce a solid core of second lieutenants to lead the Army into the future, the annual forum has given Davis and other cadets exclusive access to high-ranking leaders they may not get elsewhere.

Attending his last forum, the 21-year-old senior, who hopes to commission as a medical service officer, was linked up with acting Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy as he escorted and introduced the service's most senior leader before his speech Tuesday at this year's event.

"A lot of cadets might be hindered earlier on in their [military] career because they don't get to talk to the right people or just feel the presence of a senior leader in the Army," the cadet said. "I'm lucky that Howard affords me that opportunity."

This year, McCarthy and a dozen Army staff principal officers from an array of career fields provided mentorship to inquisitive cadets from Howard, a historically black university, and many other colleges.

At the lectern, the acting secretary spoke of his own experience as a young officer in the 75th Ranger Regiment, where a collection of Soldiers from various backgrounds worked as a team.

"The Army has proven capable of forging the diverse communities of American life together because no matter where they come from, Soldiers are all here for the same core reason -- we want to make a difference," he said.

Within his unit, he said, there was a Native American platoon sergeant from North Carolina, an African American team leader from a tough part of Detroit, and a squad leader from a rural Texas town, among other Soldiers from across the country.

Then there was McCarthy, who grew up as a kid in a comfortable home on the north side of Chicago. He said back then that he never had to step outside his way of life or his view of the world.

"I had no humility and no appreciation of what hard times felt like," he said. "That all changed when I joined the Army."

McCarthy said that as he experienced the joys and arduous times of military life alongside his fellow Soldiers, especially his NCOs, he learned from them what makes this country special.

He told the cadets gathered at Howard University that he still uses lessons he learned from his former platoon sergeant in his current role to make a positive impact for more than 1 million Soldiers and their families.

"No one could have known it at the time, but think of what a difference [that sergeant] made just by taking the time to mentor Lieutenant McCarthy," he said. "That is making a personal difference. That is what you can do in the Army."

As commissioned officers, he explained, the cadets will meet Soldiers who may not think or behave the way they do. But it will still be their job to change their lives for the better as others did for him, he said.

"Each of you had an inspiration that brought you here today, in our country's uniform," he said. "Be that inspiration in your platoons, in your schools, and in your communities. Be a trailblazer for those who are following after you."

After his speech, a panel of senior leaders, ranging from a colonel to three-star generals, fielded questions from the cadets.

Lt. Gen. Gwendolyn Bingham, the Army's assistant chief of staff for installation management, offered some advice on what has helped her throughout her 36-year career.

"If you keep a positive attitude, you read and learn your craft and be the very best officer as you can, you too will find success," she said.

Bingham acknowledged that many cadets and Soldiers are hesitant, at least initially, to make a career of the Army. When she first put on a uniform, for instance, she had only wanted to serve for four years.

"But something happened along the way," she said. "I fell in love with this vocation called the U.S. Army and I've been better for it as a Soldier, wife, mother and citizen."

Before the panel, Cadet Catherine Lynch and other future officers had more opportunities to interact with the senior leaders during a lunch break.

"This is invaluable experience," said Lynch, a 20-year-old junior from Mount St. Mary's University in northern Maryland who spoke in-depth with Bingham about her career.

While both of Lynch's parents are Army officers, she thought the forum gave her a unique chance to rub shoulders and learn from the service's top brass.

"It is huge to just have that experience and have that face-to-face time. They may not remember us, but I will certainly remember this forever," said Lynch, who is trying to be a military intelligence or quartermaster officer.

Whichever career field they serve in, the acting secretary said once the cadets become commissioned officers they will be expected to make the force ready for combat.

"I am charging you to make us better in preparation for that day," he said. "Rise to the challenge -- you are the leaders."