By Brandon OConnorSeptember 26, 2019
No matter whether they graduate from the U.S. Military Academy or an ROTC program, junior officers will be expected to quickly step into leadership roles in the Army and be ready to lead Soldiers into combat.
To help prepare future officers to take on that responsibility, West Point hosted Honorable Leadership Week Sept. 15-21. From start to finish, the week was full of activities including the annual Branch Week, where the Army's 17 branches set up static displays to introduce cadets to their postgraduation career opportunities, and the 17th annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference.
While the events were primarily held to develop and inspire West Point cadets, the academy also invited ROTC cadets to take part in activities throughout the week.
During Branch Week, cadets from the Fordham University and Rutgers University ROTC programs had the chance to visit West Point, tour the displays and talk to representatives from each of the Army branches.
Coming from ROTC programs where their contact with the Army is mostly limited to the members of the cadre leading their program, it was the first chance for many of the cadets to ask in depth questions about branches not represented in their schools' programs.
"None of our cadre were ADA (Air Defense Artillery). We only had one FA (Field Artillery) officer," Cadet Alan Zhang, a member of the Fordham ROTC program and a student at New York University, said. "It's very interesting because we get to learn a lot about branches that we otherwise would not have really learned about other than what's available online. That's nowhere near as comprehensive as talking to actual lower enlisted, senior enlisted and officers here. It's an amazing resource and I'm having a good time."
West Point cadets are given the annual opportunity to go through Branch Week and ask questions of the branches they are interested in, but for the ROTC cadets, their visit may have been their only opportunity to see all 17 branches in one place. They had limited time, but for cadets like Zhang, who has to finalize his branch preferences next year, even those few hours provided to walk through the displays had a tremendous impact.
"Honestly, this has made a huge difference being able to talk to actual officers fresh out of BOLC (Basic Officer Leadership Course) and officers who are working right now on the line in unit," Zhang said. "I otherwise would not know what a day in the life would be like. It's amazing. I'm learning a lot and it's definitely going to impact my decision."
Touring the branch displays also gave ROTC cadets the chance to learn about more niche jobs within the branches such as the Army divers within the Engineer branch and Medevac pilots within the Aviation branch that they had no previous exposure to.
"I think it's definitely impacted me a lot. I think coming in today I had maybe a top four, which branches I was interested in, and those have already been shaken up," Cadet Elizabeth Thomas, a member of the Fordham ROTC program and a student at Columbia University, said. "They had aviation mixed with med services, as medevac pilots, which is an opportunity I hadn't known about and because aviation is so hard to get into, it's so competitive, that is a new route that I'm definitely looking more at now."
ROTC cadets from throughout the country were also invited to attend the Diversity and Inclusion Conference. It included workshops and guest speakers discussing topics related to having diversity in the workplace and actively including people from all walks of life in the decision-making process. The keynote speaker was retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, USMA Class of 1980, who was the first African American First Captain at West Point.
"I think the most valuable thing I've gotten out of all the talks and workshops that we've done is this idea of reframing the conversation. We talk a lot about diversity as headcounts," Cadet Pedro Lazo Rivera, a member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ROTC program. "Inclusion isn't just letting you into the space, it's enabling you to succeed within it. So being able to study and explore that idea of something I hadn't been exposed to is really cool."
The West Point Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, which hosted the conference, put that idea into practice by giving ROTC cadets a seat at the table and a voice in the discussion along with West Point cadets, alumni, staff and faculty. Throughout the two-day conference, they listened to various speakers who talked about the impact of diversity and inclusion and also participated in workshops and discussions to learn how to implement those ideas.
"They are Soldiers all the time," Cadet Noelle Shaw, a member of the Howard University ROTC program, said. "So, that's a different understanding of what it means to be a black Soldier, a black female Soldier. I put the uniform on and I can take it off and go about my civilian life and not necessarily have to worry about the Soldier part of my identity getting in the way of anything that I want to do or with anyone having other judgments about me because of that."
ROTC cadets are invited to the conference annually to expose them to West Point, enable them to network with their fellow future leaders and to help develop well-rounded officers from not just West Point, but all commissioning sources.
"I think it's really important that people who come from diverse places be in the room when we're having this conversation," Lazo Rivera said. "People who have a diversity of experience, in addition to a diverse background like having ROTC cadets who are from Howard University, or small New England elite universities all in the room with cadets from West Point, it gives them a variety of perspectives from a variety of places and a variety of experiences."