By Brandon OConnorSeptember 4, 2019
With spring break approaching, most of the barracks closing down and a trip home to Louisiana not an option, Class of 2022 Cadet Rondell Thomas needed a place to stay.
A plebe at the U.S. Military Academy who had entered as a prior-service cadet, Thomas knew he could turn to the family that had consistently welcomed him into their home since his arrival at West Point. So, he reached out to Capt. Moises Ochoa and his wife Maria, his sponsors through the Fourth-Class Sponsorship Program, which assigns each new plebe to a West Point family, and asked to stay at their home over break.
Thomas was one of five members of the Class of 2022 sponsored by the Ochoas. In the few short months since he'd arrived at the academy, they had become his home away from home. He feels it is a safe place he can escape to when he needs a break from the rigors of life at the academy.
"They are your family away from family and it is essential because you can vent to them, you can lean on them," Thomas said. "You know they are your support when your family doesn't understand if you're a family that's not in the military. They understand. They've been through that. They've been through the ropes and the experience, so they know how to relate to you."
The Ochoas invite their sponsored cadets over for Sunday dinner, attend events they participate in and open their home if cadets need a place to stay, like Thomas did over spring break.
Although they had no previous ties to West Point, they immediately joined the program after arriving in May 2018. They started with that year's ice cream social, and made it their goal to sponsor and support minority cadets, especially Hispanic cadets who are the first-generation of their families to attend college.
"It gives the cadets an insight into how a military family should be or could be," Capt. Ochoa said. "The biggest question is what is a military life balance? So, when you involve your family into your military life there isn't a balance, it's one of the same. They get to see having day to day normal conversations at the table, kids who look up to them. It gives them a different perspective than during the week here at West Point when they might be in a bubble."
Cadets not only find a family ready to support them during the ups and downs of their time at the academy, but also mentors who can help them as they prepare for their military careers.
For Capts. Carter and Elizabeth Bell, joining the sponsorship program was a way to build upon and improve the experiences they had while they were cadets at the academy.
Carter Bell, a TAC officer, and Elizabeth Bell, a professor in the physics department, were assigned sponsors while at West Point, but their experiences were drastically different.
While Carter had little to do with his sponsor, Elizabeth Bell continues to talk to her mentor, be mentored by her and invited her sponsor to their wedding.
Between the two of them, they will sponsor nine yearlings and 10 plebes this year. Their goal is to build constructive relationships with them by welcoming them into their home for meals, attending their events, offering extra academic help and providing personal and professional mentorship.
"What we tell them the first day they come in is a lot of this is a two-way street," Elizabeth Bell said. "We will provide you dinner twice a semester and you can come over for a free meal. Also, if you want this to be a real relationship, you've got to tell us what you're thinking, when you need help, when you want support and when you just want to get out of the barracks."
During her first year at West Point, Class of 2022 Cadet Krista Flinkstrom took full advantage of that relationship. Before football games she would attend their tailgate, she'd stop by if she needed to do laundry and when she needed a quiet place to study for term end exams, the Bells allowed her to stay over for a weekend.
"West Point graduates sponsoring us makes a difference because they understand where we are at in the academy," Flinkstrom said. "They understand the lingo and can give us a perspective of what the real Army is compared to West Point. Having Capt. (Elizabeth) Bell who is female graduate from West Point with her Ivy League graduate degree and her successful aviation career is also very cool and inspiring to me."
The sponsorship program also enables cadets to meet and make friends with cadets who aren't in their company or on their team. And now as the members of the Class of 2022 begin their second year at the academy, they will have the chance to welcome the plebes their families are sponsoring and help them through their first year at West Point.
"I have been able to form friendships with the other cadets sponsored," Class of 2022 Cadet Rosalva Martinez, who is sponsored by the Ochoas, said. "Whenever we see each other its always pleasant and we are checking up on each other to make sure everything is OK. I hope to be able to mentor the new plebes and tell them my experience and help them grow as people."