When a student graduates from high school with hopes of becoming an officer in the military, they have three options: They can apply to a military academy, enter a 12-to-14 week program after college called Officer Candidate School or join the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Students in UW-Madison’s Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps ROTC train to become leaders in the military while working toward a four-year degree and getting the traditional college experience.
“The ROTC is like the academy in that it’s spread out over four years,” said UW-Madison Naval ROTC Commanding Officer Captain Christopher Murdoch. “But at the same time you get the best of both worlds because you're pretty much a regular college student with the ROTC for 10-15 hours a week on top of your normal schedule.”
In addition to military training, ROTC students gain a perspective on war policy, culture and public opinion they might not get at an academy.
“Let’s be honest, the academy might actually be more diverse than Madison,” said Murdoch. “But at least viewpoint-wise, we've got a diverse student body and so many different opportunities and people to interact with.”
UW-Madison Military Science Department Chair Lieutenant Colonel Katie Blue, who attended the ROTC program at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, said she notices the benefits her college experience had on her military career.
“I certainly think the exposure that I got in college to the different things that were available—the clubs, the people, even going out and having to experiment on my own socially—all helped me to become a well-rounded officer,” Blue said.
Similarly, Christopher Burns, a senior in the Air Force ROTC, found that his time here has allowed him to understand the responsibilities associated with leadership.
“I learned from some stupid stuff that I did that affected me and I had to deal with that and move on and recognize what I wanted,” Burns said. “Compared to students who aren’t in ROTC, it feels like we just have more responsibility.”
At UW-Madison all students are required to take breadth requirements intended to produce informed citizens. In the case of ROTC students, these requirements translate to more informed leaders, decision-makers and public servants.
This idea of teaching the humanities to future military officers isn’t just present here at UW. In a speech about the importance of the humanities at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last month, Harvard president Drew Faust told the cadets, “take the wisdom and inspiration of the great thinkers and leaders who went before you, and then create your own.”
At the same time, ROTC programs around the nation heavily recruit students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, degrees for the critical thinking skills and technical aptitude they provide. UW is no exception. Whether officers are devising strategies for the army or working on a nuclear submarine in the navy, officers need a certain knack for problem-solving.
“The army has kind of figured out that the technical, more scientific-minded students are the kind of leaders that we need because they will become the strategic planners for the army,” Blue said.
For Burns, an engineering major, these skills will be vital when it comes to solving problems in the Air Force.
“I think my engineering courses have taught me to think critically about a lot of things and to being able to take an overall approach to solving any problem,” he said.
The leadership skills instilled in cadets and midshipmen from day one of ROTC training is paramount to their future as officers, according to Blue.
“We don't want leaders who just follow checklists and do what they're told,” she said. “We want leaders that can think on their feet, we want leaders that can anticipate their bosses' requirements and act before being told what to do.”
According to Murdoch, who teaches a leadership and ethics course in the ROTC program, integrity and self-reflection are also crucial for the kind of decision-making needed from military leaders.
“For me, personal integrity is absolutely critical to leadership. If you don't understand yourself and your own weaknesses, it is impossible to gain credibility with those you will lead,” he said.
In less than a month 38 cadets and midshipmen from UW’s three ROTC programs will be commissioned. They will take the next step on their road to military officership with the critical thinking skills, cultural awareness and personal integrity to lead and serve others in the U.S. and around the world.