While Army ROTC battalions around the nation continue to adjust the way curriculum is taught and physical fitness is maintained due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are also expected to keep up recruiting efforts. The Fighting Illini Battalion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was not thrilled to sacrifice their annual recruiting event in which interested high school students can shadow a Cadet for a day. However, Cadets and cadre managed to put together a virtual interactive information session they hope will be just as effective as their traditional recruiting tools.
“What we found was over 80% of the students that attended these [shadowing] events decided to come to our university and enroll in military science classes,” said Eric Ashworth, Assistant Professor of Military Science and scholarships and enrollment officer. He credits the Cadets as being the battalion’s best recruiters, just from sharing their personal experiences with transitioning to life as a college student and a future Army officer.
When their day of shadowing was effectively cancelled due to the pandemic, the Fighting Illini Battalion had to find a creative approach to convince recruits to commit to their university.
MSIV Cadet Jack Hamman noted that he was inspired by the way his military science classes were being conducted, and he hoped by employing the same techniques that they could overcome the recruiting challenge, “We have brought in numerous individuals with real world experience to discuss different topics as subject matter experts. This would not be possible under typical circumstances, but has been made possible through the utilization of these technologies.”
Thus, “A Day in the Life of an Army ROTC Cadet” was born. The battalion quickly settled on using Zoom to conduct an interactive information session that would cover a variety of topics surrounding what is consistently most important to recruits, the transition between high school and college, and what day-to-day life of a Cadet consists of.
The battalion reached out to high school students that were already lined up to shadow a Cadet in the spring semester, as well as students that had already committed to Army ROTC at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They also connected with local high school guidance counselors to send information about the Zoom session to students who had expressed interest in joining the military after graduation. When all was said and done, enough high school students were expected that the battalion scheduled three information sessions, with five Cadet panelists for each session.
“We have great Cadets that work well as a team and are happy to help students with an interest in serving in the military. I had to turn away volunteers to help us with this project,” said Ashworth.
Hamman moderated the discussions while Cadet panelists discussed how they personally transitioned into college life and how Army ROTC had been influential in their collegiate success. Topics ranged from ideal places to live on campus and how to select a good roommate to balancing obligations as a student and an ROTC Cadet. Panelists were chosen to deliberately showcase the medley of interests of Fighting Illini Cadets, and what potential students could look forward to being involved in should they choose to attend the University of Illinois.
Overall, battalion staff believe the event provided a great opportunity to reach out to a wider variety of students who are still exploring their options, or perhaps didn’t have the confidence to otherwise make a visit for a day of shadowing.
“[Zoom] allowed prospective Cadets to be as social or reserved as they wanted to be. [It] gives individuals options such as enabling their cameras or audio so that they could talk and interact with us or, if they wanted to just watch and listen, they could keep these features off and ask private questions in the chat,” said Hamman.
Battalion leadership see the event as a success so far, but are unsure of the need for virtual information sessions of such a caliber past the time of social distancing.
“This was an experiment, so we planned to assess the interest and adjust from it. If the campus reopens in the fall, we plan to go back to allowing the interested high school students to shadow our Cadets, but I can see the value of making a copy of this Zoom session, linking it to our social media pages and allowing students the chance to observe our Cadets at their leisure,” said Ashworth.
“Virtual interactions with students or virtual tours do help democratize the process of exploring college options. For individuals who may not have the means to visit a school that is far away or inaccessible to them, this can be a great alternative moving forward to give them a taste of campus, and cadet life in order to assist them in making their decision,” said Hamman.
A piece of advice Ashworth likes to pass on to Army ROTC Cadets is to continuously practice public speaking and being prepared for engagements with the public, “As a military leader, you must be prepared at all times to represent your unit, and the Army, to a curious public.”
In letting Cadets take the helm on this virtual recruiting project, the Fighting Illini Battalion not only got to practice public speaking and representing the Army, but also adapting to unprecedented obstacles that may come their way.