The Summer Leader Experience is designed to offer a glimpse into the academic, athletic and social life of U.S. Military Academy cadets to rising high school seniors looking to make the critical decision for their college journey within the next year.
In years past, those high school students were afforded a weeklong opportunity to participate in SLE in person at West Point. They were challenged with academic classes, participating in physical activity and military training while living in the barracks and eating in the mess hall as they soaked up the knowledge provided by cadets in face-to-face personal interactions that helped provide context to their imminent university choice.
This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, SLE was offered virtually to prospective cadet candidates for the first time to decide if West Point is the right choice for them.
Nearly 1,200 high school students participated during three iterations of SLE from May 29-June 11 that included shortening the training days to four and breaking up the students into six different cohorts with a morning and afternoon group during each iteration.
SLE is a self-sustaining program, where tuition is charged, offered by the Directorate of Admissions and led by reservist officers called Military Academy Liaison Officers (MALOs). However, the key for SLE to work on any level in a virtual environment this year was the cadet cadre and staff, “Had to be creative,” Col. Shannon Horne, SLE/MALO commander, said.
Cadets’ creativity leads to virtual success
Fifty-five cadets served as cadet cadre and staff to make the cadet candidates’ SLE experience one they will never forget. Led by SLE battalion cadet commander, Class of 2022 Cadet Konrad Babraj, the staff worked to ensure everything was up and running through the links and schedules provided for the cadet candidates to experience every session of SLE virtually on Microsoft Teams and the use of Blackboard.
“This has been a learning detail as this is something that has never been done before,” Class of 2022 Cadet Stephanie Dolehide, SLE command sergeant major, said. “But there have also been many unique platforms created here as, for example, Cadets Liam Thayer and Robert Rizzo created a virtual land navigation protractor platform.”
Horne said during the planning process for SLE, Class of 2022 Liam Thayer, who was also a SLE company commander, asked the question, “How do we explain a protractor through a screen?”
While each cadet candidate received a package sent to them, which included West Point products such as hats and T-shirts, it also included a map, protractor and a compass to participate in a land navigation class taught by cadet squad leaders.
“Imagine trying to teach land navigation through a screen, it is hard enough to teach it walking candidates through a field,” Horne said. “Now, they’re trying to teach them through a screen.”
Horne said Thayer, with the help of Rizzo, created a transparent digital protractor that can move on the map on the screen.
“He said, ‘this is what we need,’ and he took some time and created it,” Horne said. “Now, the Department of Military Instruction is probably going to start using it. He essentially made an innovation that will transcend over time.”
Class of 2023 Sydney Frascht also used her ingenuity to better explain the Army branches that cadet candidates learn about during a block of instruction.
As Horne explained, cadets don’t necessarily understand each of the Army branches, so trying to provide important information to cadet candidates is a tough task when the questions come from inquiring minds but not enough data is available to make sense of it, especially when viewing a powerpoint presentation.
“(Frascht) said ‘we can do better,’ and she took the Army branches and compared them to the civilian counterpart, so these teenagers might be able to understand better,” Horne said.
For example, Frascht took the Cyber branch and broke it down to the skills needed to perform the tasks and the prerequisites like being a computer science major that the branch would be looking for from a prospective officer.
“I think taking the extra step of translating it to a civilian job resonated a whole bunch more with 17-year-olds who don’t speak military,” Horne said. “She shared it with everybody, including all the squad leaders, to allow them the extra time to think through what they can do to engage their ‘Beast’ candidates even more. It was a simple thing, but it was a creative thing that is now taking it to the next level.”
The Process of Learning about West Point
Over the four days of an SLE iteration, the information came fast and furious to the cadet candidates. It began with an SLE overview/icebreaker and then moved into an academic workshop, cadet discussion panel and Dean’s brief on the first day.
“The cadet discussion panel is where cadets sit with a moderator and the cadet candidates asked questions to the discussion panel while the moderator called on different cadets to answer those specific questions,” Dolehide said. “Later on, the squad leaders interviewed the cadet candidates, which will be sent to the admissions office. It’s asking them different questions that will help in the admissions process.”
During day two, the cadet candidates received ethics and character training from MX 400 instructor, retired Lt. Col. David Jones, and then moved into the map reading/land navigation class, another academics workshop, a religious services brief and then the Commandant’s brief.
The final two days came at a quick pace with an admissions brief, military medical class, Army branches class, ODIA brief about sports at West Point, another academic workshop, a physical assessment brief, a culminating squad competition and the Superintendent’s brief that led into the cadet candidate SLE graduation.
While the cadet candidates weren’t on-site, they did have battalion formations and performed physical training through the Strava App each day.
“The app tracked their workouts,” Class of 2022 Cadet Natalia Williams, SLE S-3 (operations) officer, said. “Squad leaders were told to tell their CCs to log their mileage each day on the Strava App, which is basically a social media platform for exercising.”
With the cadet candidates not present, the cadets did their best to make them feel they were at West Point.
“There were many ways we tried to make them feel like they were here,” Dolehide said. “Squad leaders sent them videos of their experiences and showing some of the things on campus. Then, the squad leaders went through their own storyline at West Point and showed photos to give them the whole West Point experience — which I think was really nice.”
Dolehide said it was unanimous that the cadet candidates all wanted to be at West Point in-person, but she, like Williams, said the feedback was positive on their SLE experience despite not being here.
“A lot of them stated how much their squad leader brought them in and tried to make it as real of an experience for them as possible,” Dolehide, a corps squad women’s tennis athlete, said. “(The CCs) said they learned so much and really loved their four-day experience.
“I think we’ve not only given them insight on West Point, but insight on choosing the right university or institution for themselves,” she added. “I was vulnerable with the cadet candidates and talked about some things I’ve gone through at West Point and how West Point has taught me so much from those experiences and relationships I’ve had that really helped me grow … we just wanted to share as much about West Point and impart some of our wisdom that we’ve gained over the past few years.”
Williams reiterated the positive feedback she received from this year’s cadet candidates while adding that her SLE experience coming up from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was important to her choosing the academy.
“Any interaction that the CCs get with people from West Point is a good experience,” Williams said. “For me, when I was a CC, West Point seemed like it was very unattainable. But once I came here for my SLE, it started to feel like I could see myself fitting in here.
“Even though it is virtual (this year), it still gives you a taste of West Point and what it has to offer,” she added. “It allows you to know what people are like here and who you would be interacting with on a day-to-day basis. Back then, meeting the cadre and the other CCs I was with, and seeing this is a military academy, I found they all had normal personalities and weren’t military robots — they were just like me, so I was like, ‘OK, I can do this, too.’”
Cadet candidates and the experience missed not being at West Point
Williams described her cadet candidate experience as a culture shock because it was the first time she saw communal showers, and sometimes it’s the little shocks that add up to, “Oh, this is different.”
“For me, it was the barracks and what it was like to live with a roommate,” Williams said. “I’m an only child, so I had never lived with a roommate before SLE — so that was good.”
Williams said the face-to-face interactions are important, as well as touring the campus. Her squad leader took them on Flirtation Walk and received the first chance to eat mess hall food, which all added to a positive experience.
“It was just getting the feel that you’re going to be fine even though you are away from home,” Williams said. “Add in marching and cadences, they were fun.”
Williams spoke to the current SLE group during the club breakout sessions about the Gospel Choir and other cadet clubs in general. But while she relayed the things they can do while at West Point, she couldn’t replicate what it is actually like to be at West Point.
“The landscape of West Point is really beautiful,” Williams said. “It was honestly breathtaking because I live in South Florida and we don’t have any of these terrain features, it’s just beach and water. West Point is impressive to see.”
Horne, a 1995 USMA graduate, agrees with Williams from the perspective that there is something indescribable about being at West Point.
“The cadet experience is a whole other layer, but people who visited here told me, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what it is about West Point, but it just speaks to you,’” Horne, who has five children who all attended SLE including one this year, said. “It is an intangible thing that you cannot recreate.”
What was learned in the cadre’s role as leaders
At the first meeting, which was post graduation, for SLE, Horne spoke with cadet cadre and staff and said, “This will be an amazing leadership opportunity that nobody else at West Point, none of your peers will be able to have because you have the daunting task of taking a tangible three-dimensional experience that is the cadet experience … and make it into a one-dimensional experience, imparted through a screen.”
Horne saw this as a harder leadership challenge than a normal face-to-face interaction and that there was a lot to learn from digging deeper in a virtual environment.
“I had one squad leader go, ‘Ma’am, I’m saying the same thing I said for the last two iterations,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but this is the first time they’re hearing it,’” Horne said. “It’s on you as a leader to not let them know it’s your third time answering the same exact questions over and over.
“How are you going to show your enthusiasm even though you might not be as enthused as the first time?” she added. “In the end, I want the cadets to give a true authentic, both positive and negative, view of their cadet experience. If they can do that, they are doing the best they can to try to explain the tangible 47-month experience that is being a cadet. We don’t want to convince them to come here, we want them to help the cadet candidates figure out if it’s right for them.”
This year, about 4,000 high school students applied to SLE, down from the usual 6,000 who apply on a yearly basis. Luckily, the program was expanded to nearly 1,200 because they weren’t limited to beds or barracks space as usual in an on-site SLE visit.
“This year, we cut out the S-1 personnel officer due to not needing to take accountability,” Horne said. “This allowed us to do some personnel switches to allow for more squad leaders, and that’s a key job in SLE. I told the squad leaders, who are usually the rising Cows, that they’re essentially the marketing officers for West Point.
“They’re the ones answering the questions from the candidates and their enthusiasm and their transparency on their experience will directly affect somebody’s decision to whether or not they choose West Point as the place they want to be,” she added.
The staff, squad leaders and MALOs of Task Force Walker, named after 1st Lt. Laura Walker, a 2003 USMA graduate who died in Afghanistan, under the motto, “Breach a New Way Forward,” came together to make the operation look professional and tightly run to show what West Point is like.
“We tried to embody the positivity and inclusivity 1st Lt. Walker had and really to breach a new way forward in this new virtual environment,” Dolehide said.
Dolehide said the biggest goal was to ensure the cadet candidates had a good West Point experience and got to see West Point, despite it being virtual.
Williams’ job as the S-3 operations officer was important to get the training, FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) and any new information out. Dolehide’s role as the command sergeant major was to enforce the standards and discipline in the battalion.
“I had oversight of PT, the barracks cleanliness, rules and regulations and I oversaw with my commander to make sure the staff was running everything properly,” Dolehide said.
Dolehide and Williams both learned a little about themselves in their leadership roles in trying to pull off something never attempted before at West Point.
With Dolehide it was about navigating different leadership and communication styles and finding out what was most efficient to use among her peers.
“It gave us the chance to be creative with our leadership,” Dolehide said. “The big thing for me was trying to enable and empower my first sergeants the best I could.
“I’ve learned so much from the MALOs we’ve worked with,” she added. “Also, with the cadets, I’ve learned a lot from the squad leaders who got down and got creative and seeing their motivation has been a spark.”
Williams said she had to find a balance of peer leadership when it came to dealing with friends.
“It can be very difficult because some of them are my friends, so sometimes they cross the boundaries between respectful and disrespectful,” Williams, who was also the cadet-in-charge of a SLE cadet cadre aviation trip to Connecticut coordinated by Col. Peter Mack, said. “I had to reign them in while also not wanting to lose our friendship, but also needing to preserve my position as a leader, especially when dealing with officers as well.”
Williams also said that communication was key to making clear her intentions of what she needed from everyone in her role as a leader.
“It taught me that when you’re a leader, you have to be extremely clear with your directives because the further they go down, the muddier they get,” Williams said. “It is one of the first times I actually had to think about something like that.
“In previous details, I always thought that people on staff had it easy because they weren’t doing anything,” she added. “When you’re a subordinate, you have a lot of physical work and when you’re on staff, you have a lot of mental work — things you need to think about, the processing of things and making sure that it’s coming across the way you want it to because as soon as you put information out there, people are going to come back to you with questions.”
Reflecting on the unique experience
Everyone played a key role in limiting any glitches in the virtual environment that was SLE 2021. Just like the graduates of the USMA Class of 2020 who had the unique experience of graduating without the big crowd of family and friends, this SLE leadership group may end up having the unique encounter of being the only group to lead a cadet detail in a virtual environment.
While there are positives and negatives to be taken away, it was still a memorable moment in time for this group of 55 cadet cadre and MALOs.
Dolehide said the one thing she will reflect on from SLE is how the squad leaders got extremely creative to make it the best experience for the cadet candidates.
“It was a tough task to do,” Dolehide said. “It was also nice to see the chain of command and all the cadre motivate each other in explaining the importance of this detail for the CCs and never getting complacent because that was a tough thing to do when the CCs weren’t here.”
Williams looked at this experience to refine her leadership skills and be more concrete when giving out directives to subordinates. However, she also added, “I should be willing to listen to what my subordinates have to say and tweak things as necessary.”
“In order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower,” Williams said. “I will definitely keep that in the back of my mind the next time I’m in a subordinate position and to not give so much crap to the leadership.”
Horne spoke from the perspective of being a reservist who embraces the mission doing the training right to where the cadets are taking care of the cadet candidates to ultimately decide to come or not to come to the academy.
“They are training the candidates and we’re training the cadets, and we adore that,” Horne said.
But the principal recollection she will take from this SLE experience, especially for someone who has worked SLE in some capacity since 2004, is the cadets taking on a leadership role never seen before.
“The cadets took on a leadership challenge that nobody before them has had to do, so they were reinventing the wheel when it came to how do you motivate people virtually,” Horne said. “I don’t think any of us thought it was the ideal situation, but I guarantee you they will walk away with some lessons learned about their leadership style, what worked and what didn’t work and it’s going to be a real organic lesson because of all the factors involved.
“It is a hard decision (for the cadet candidates) to make to come here and these cadets gave them a true accurate picture of what their cadet experience is like,” she added. “Good or bad, as long as it resonated with the cadet candidates, that’s the most important thing about SLE.”