ROTC students shape Penn State experience while learning leadership skills

Cadet Katelyn Ernst chose Penn State because of its highly recognized meteorology program, which is considered a technical major. The Air Force has given her a scholarship to continue into a fifth-year to pick up a second major in math.

“When I got here, I expected it to be hard-core with yelling and pushups, but it’s completely opposite of that,” Ernst said. “Your freshman year, it’s not much of a time commitment. Basically you have three things per week. Once you’re a junior and senior, it’s pretty much like a full-time job.”

Ernst is among the hundreds of students involved in one of the University's three ROTC programs, which help prepare students for life after Penn State. ROTC class teach ethics, officership, professionalism, military customs and courtesies, and leadership, management and communications skills, and when they graduate, ROTC students who have met all the requirements become commissioned officers in the Army, Navy or Air Force. 

“When I got here, I expected it to be hard-core with yelling and pushups, but it’s completely opposite of that."

— Cadet Katelyn Ernst, a Penn State senior majoring in meteorology and math

During her junior year, she served as the executive officer for her wing — the group of students in her ROTC program — and sent announcements to keep up with internal communications. The next year, she became wing commander. “You have a staff of five or six people, and you’re basically the middleman between the cadre and the wing,” she said.

Besides her official duties, Ernst also has become involved in ROTC student groups like the Honor Guard drill team, and she’s currently the president of Silver Wings, a Penn State Dance Marathon (THON) fundraising group for ROTC members and civilian students.

Brian Prentice, a spring 2014 Penn State graduate now in flight school in Pensacola, Fla., lived in the combined ROTC Special Living Option in East Halls on the University Park campus when he began school as a Naval ROTC student. “The first day I got here, I had 50 friends right away — 50 people you can turn to when you need help,” he said.

After he began to assimilate to his new surroundings, Prentice, who majored in electrical engineering, quickly took advantage of what the ROTC and the University had to offer. “You realize that it’s an awesome experience, awesome environment, great education. It really gets you ready for the workforce but also provides the training to get you ready for post-graduation commissioning and the road beyond that.”

Commissioning the most officers in the Big Ten, Penn State has a long history of molding future leaders through its three ROTC programs. Read more about the programs here.

Prentice said that participating in ROTC keeps students busy, but that there are many opportunities to get involved in activities for someone with good time management skills. He said he honed in on a certain activity each semester and pursued another activity on the side, adding that practicing good time management means finding a balance between a professional life and a personal life. “You can be professional when you need to and hang out later when you want to,” he said.

Each branch offers many extracurricular activities through student clubs and volunteer service. In addition to Silver Wings and the Honor Guard drill team, the Air Force ROTC has a choir, a color guard for home Penn State football games, Civil Air Patrol aviation, aircraft orientation flights, intramural sports and Arnold Air Society, a national service-oriented sister organization to Silver Wings for ROTC students.

Army ROTC students can join the rifle club, the running club, the Cadet Recruiting Team, the Ranger Challenge Club, the Lion’s Guard, which teaches the practice of Army Color Guards, and Kaizen, the Army’s fundraising club for THON.

In the Naval ROTC, students can volunteer with Toys for Tots, United Way Day of Caring, Pennsylvania Special Olympics, the Wounded Warrior Project and THON Operation Blue and Gold, which raised more than $14,000 this year for the University-wide student-run philanthropy. Students also have the opportunity to study abroad, travel to national leadership conferences and attend a Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Competing on a national stage

In addition to size, Penn State’s ROTC programs consistently perform well in regional and national competitions.

At the spring Military Excellence Competition (MEC) at Villanova University, the largest military competition in the Northeast, Penn State’s Naval ROTC beat 23 other programs, including the United States Naval Academy, to place first overall for athletics. Penn State students also took home more than 40 first-place medals in areas such as drill competition, track and field events and swimming.

Penn State’s Air Force ROTC Honor Guard drill team also took home first place among 11 teams at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) drill competition this spring. RPI is one of a few similar competitions across the U.S. and the only drill meet in the Northeast.

Last fall, the Army ROTC’s Ranger Challenge team won its fourth straight title at the 2nd Brigade Ranger Challenge Competition, a regional qualifier among 43 ROTC units in the Northeast. This earned the team the right to compete in the 2014 International Sandhurst Military Stakes Competition held at West Point. Penn State earned 10th place overall and second place among ROTC teams at the competition, which featured 36 West Point teams, teams from the other service academies and international military academies from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, China and 10 other nations. In 2013, Penn State’s team earned second place overall, which is the highest placement for any ROTC program in the competition’s history.

These high rankings earn the students more than just bragging rights — they also are an indicator for what’s to come in their future careers. Once students enter the ROTC, they begin competing nationally against other ROTC students in their designated military branch for commissioning assignments upon completion of their degrees. Upon graduation, Air Force and Army ROTC graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants, and Naval ROTC graduates are commissioned as ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.

Penn State "students first"

All three ROTC branches have a shared philosophy that the Penn State student experience takes precedence, and ROTC students can get involved in campus life outside of the ROTC, too. With more than 1,000 student organizations at the University Park campus alone, involvement opportunities seem endless.

“It’s very well-balanced,” said Midshipman Alex Robertson, a Penn State sophomore. “When we’re not wearing the uniform, we know how to be normal college students as well. You can be in the military environment and act accordingly, but you can also be in your residency hall or your apartment and just be a normal college kid.”

Students in ROTC make up a small percentage of the University Park population, but their presence is seen on campus each week when students wear their uniforms — Air Force on Tuesdays and Army and Navy on Thursdays, but many also can be seen outside of their designated military programs.

“I think a big misconception to identify is that it’s all Army all the time,” said Dave Rizzo, scholarship and enrollment officer with Penn State Army ROTC. “We allow them to be students first.”

ROTC students get involved in many campus clubs and organizations, and the ROTC cadre works to make that happen. Students involved in club and varsity sports, for example, can be excused from the physical training aspect of their ROTC program since they’re already working out.

“Our goal is to get these cadets where they want to be,” Rizzo said.

Last Updated July 22, 2014