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ROTC Students Struggle to Reconcile Careers and Military

Cadets work to balance scholarship duty and academic planning

By Molly Hennessy-fiske and Jal D. Mehta, CRIMSON STAFF WRITERSs

Flying a fighter plane through enemy territory and playing Top Gun in real life is a dream Jeff H. Dunn '98 says is about to come true when he graduates, thanks to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

"I'll be in for at least 10 years flying some cool planes," he says.

But for Patrick Aquino '98, who accepted a four-year Navy ROTC scholarship hoping to attend medical school one day, dreams of military glory turned to struggles over paperwork and an eventual exit from the program.

"In the end, I felt my career in the Navy would interfere with my future goals," Aquino says of his medical school plans.

"You follow the needs of the Navy," he says. "I wanted to have [military service] as an option, not an obligation."

All Harvard ROTC cadets participate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's ROTC program. Many, like Aquino, accept military scholarships that obligate them to serve in a post assigned by the military.

Although not all cadets at MIT sign up for ROTC with specific careers in mind, those who do often have difficulty landing desirable upper-level jobs, despite their impressive college credentials.

In addition, cadets say the ROTC program often has made delaying service to go to law or medical school, or switching majors within ROTC, a daunting task.

According to officials at MIT's ROTC program, these problems occur primarily because the military does not view cadets as free agents-it sees them as good investments.

"We always tell [high school students] when they show up that the needs of the Air Force come first," says Col. William Rutley, a visiting professor of aerospace studies and director of Air Force ROTC at MIT for the last two years, of the students he recruits for ROTC.

"We will show you the opportunities in career fields, but there's no guarantee," he notes.

Career Dreams

Career concerns among those at the MIT training program range from deferring active duty in favor of post-graduate study to tailoring ROTC to fit their chosen career.

"When I was a senior in high school, I got on the phone with [ROTC] people to find out exactly what programs I could get into when I graduated," said Justin E. Porter '99. "The Air Force and the Navy were very strict about what fields you could study and whether you could get an educational delay. The Army was much more flexible."

According to Rutley and Lt. Col. Robert Rooney, director of Army ROTC at MIT, the Air Force and Navy are more strict than the Army in granting educational delays, but all three branches are hesitant to grant deferrals of service.

"There are educational delays for doctors and lawyers, but other than that they're pretty hard to do," Rooney said. Even in medicine and law, he says, the 150 annual educational delays granted are parceled out among 4,000 Army cadets nationally based on an "order of merit" list.

Preston said that although the MIT group ranks among the nation's finest cadets, nothing can ensure that applicants will receive an educational delay.

"The Army wants to make a good match though," he says. "They want to utilize the skills you have and not waste them in a job you don't enjoy."

Navigating the Job Market

While some ROTC participants question the motivations of recruiters' promising top jobs to greenhorn graduates, the jobs are there, although in short supply.

Capt. Randy Preston of MIT's Navy ROTC says competition should not seem strange in what he called the nation's oldest meritocracy.

But he acknowledges that some cadets attending some of the nation's best institutions are frustrated.

"There are jobs for ensigns and second lieutenants," Porter said, noting that Carmen M. O'Shea '97 managed to secure one of the coveted intelligence-officer positions. "They're just very difficult to get. So if a recruiter says that they're available, that's not really misleading."

But some cadets do not want to risk serving in what the Army calls the "unrestricted" combat sector for four years-a time when they could be working as a lawyer, doctor or intelligence officer.

Jay F. Chen '00 said he found that educational delays and top jobs were uncertain prospects. After training in San Diego at the start of this summer, he left ROTC.

"The positions that I wanted I couldn't get unless I served for three years," said Chen, a Crimson editor. "I could have been stuck doing something I didn't really want to do."

Chen had his sights set on working as a human-intelligence officer or as a lawyer in the military court, known as the Judge Advocate General-Corps (JAG). He thought that as a Harvard alumnus the likelihood of landing such a job would be high, but after one year at ROTC he said he felt his chances were sufficiently slim to warrant leaving the program.

Chen says he may not have investigated his options in depth before signing on to the ROTC four-year scholarship. He also says recruiters sometimes underplay the difficulties cadets encounter in vying for top-level job access.

"There was an element of miscommunication," Chen said. "They made [the jobs] seem much easier to get than they actually are."

Still, Chen says he had no regrets. "I'm glad I joined, because I learned a new perspective on the military," he says.

The Scholarship Gamble

While many students enter the program with definite military career ambitions, others are drawn more by the economic benefits, a trend that military officials say does not concern them.

Scholarships-which are currently given to more than 80 percent of all ROTC cadets at MIT-cover four years worth of tuition, a $100,000 value. (The Navy currently gives awards to all its ROTC cadets at MIT.)

In return, cadets are expected to attend about five hours of class at MIT each week, undergo regular physical trainings, and serve an average of four years after graduation at an unrestricted military post.

ROTC officials say the high scholarship rate is a function of that expensive tuitions at local schools.

"That's what 70 to 80 percent of the freshmen say, and it's no surprise," Rutley says. "I mean, $100,000, a stipend and money for books-that's pretty attractive. Especially at expensive schools like Harvard and MIT."

For many students the economic motivation may take the front seat.

"I didn't want to go into the Air Force and the money was not a good enough incentive," says John B. Cearley '99, who left the program before his sophomore year.

Although Army ROTC participant Porter says he "can't imagine anyone would join ROTC just to pay for school," ROTC recognizes the drawing power of its scholarships. In an effort to persuade students to join, ROTC rules allow students to leave the program after one year without forfeiting that year's scholarship money.

Rolan S. Hernandez '99 says he was not the biggest fan of the Air Force when he joined two years ago in an effort to pay for college.

"Freshman year I wasn't too psyched about it, I just wasn't sure if I wanted to commit to the discipline," says Hernandez, who describes himself as not being "by nature a structured person."

But gradually Hernandez, whose sister participated in ROTC at Notre Dame, warmed to the program and he now has his eye set on an exciting military job after graduation.

"I'm shooting for a pilot slot," he says.

And Dunn, the Air Force cadet, is one of few students who signed up for ROTC without receiving a scholarship.

"I joined ROTC because I wanted to fly," he explains.

Academic Inflexibility

Sharmil S. Modi '99 was an avid Air Force cadet before he chose to leave ROTC in order to make an academic switch.

"I have nothing bad to say about the Air Force except to say that they were inflexible in a major choices," Modi says, adding that he misses the program and "the interesting, genuine and dedicated people in it."

Modi entered ROTC as a physics major on the advice of a high-school recruiter who told him he could "get out of it" after he got to college.

But when Modi decided to concentrate in economics after his first year, he said, he was faced with the choice of either settling for physics or leaving ROTC altogether, he said.

Although Modi won a scholarship for medical school, which would have permitted free choice of an undergraduate major, he would have been required to serve eight years in the Air Force at the end of his medical residency.

Modi ultimately chose to leave ROTC. "I wasn't sure at 18 that I wanted to be a doctor," he says, explaining that the combination of medical school, a residency and eight years in the Air Force might keep him committed until age 38.

Army ROTC official Rooney acknowledges that students who want to switch majors may encounter resistance from the Army if they're moving into "soft sciences" or humanities.

Rutley says the Air Force ROTC usually tries to assuage student concerns, while keeping paramount the military's need for trained professionals.

He recalled an MIT student who recently wanted to switch his major from a technical engineering field to mechanical engineering. Since Air Force MIT already had "too many" cadets in that area, however, the student's request was denied, and he was forced to choose between staying in ROTC and adjusting his academic interests.

"He chose to stay in the program," Rutley says. "We helped him work through his problems with specific courses. That was a case where his freshmen experience got him really excited about the program."

Cadets who leave the program after the start of their sophomore year may face sizable debts.

Suzanne E. Phillips '92 left Air Force ROTC after two years because she wanted to change her major from mathematics to English.

"It was not difficult to switch from one technical field to another, or from a non-tech to another non-tech, but not across the divisions," says Phillips, now a graduate student in English.

Phillips got by with loans from Harvard, a 15-hour-per-week job and an outside fellowship. But in the long run, Phillips says, leaving ROTC has left her in financial straits. She still owes the Air Force money for her first two years with the program.

"I think it is a really good program for...people who go in for the right reasons," she says. "For other people like me, it didn't work."

Be All That You Can Be

Some cadets say ROTC does provide sufficient academic flexibility.

Switching from Air Force to Navy ROTC and then changing concentrations, from physics to American history, proved a small challenge for David T. Potere '98, director of the Harvard ROTC Association.

"I was aware going into it that the [academic] program is pretty rigid," Potere says. "But I still had the breathing space to do what I wanted."

Potere emphasized that cadets chat about possible military careers just as civilian students discuss recruiting options or the job market.

"Where we'll fit in is part of the excitement," he says.CrimsonGrigory TovbisTRAINING REGIMEN: Air Force ROTC cadets stand at attention at open ranks inspection last week at MIT.

"When I was a senior in high school, I got on the phone with [ROTC] people to find out exactly what programs I could get into when I graduated," said Justin E. Porter '99. "The Air Force and the Navy were very strict about what fields you could study and whether you could get an educational delay. The Army was much more flexible."

According to Rutley and Lt. Col. Robert Rooney, director of Army ROTC at MIT, the Air Force and Navy are more strict than the Army in granting educational delays, but all three branches are hesitant to grant deferrals of service.

"There are educational delays for doctors and lawyers, but other than that they're pretty hard to do," Rooney said. Even in medicine and law, he says, the 150 annual educational delays granted are parceled out among 4,000 Army cadets nationally based on an "order of merit" list.

Preston said that although the MIT group ranks among the nation's finest cadets, nothing can ensure that applicants will receive an educational delay.

"The Army wants to make a good match though," he says. "They want to utilize the skills you have and not waste them in a job you don't enjoy."

Navigating the Job Market

While some ROTC participants question the motivations of recruiters' promising top jobs to greenhorn graduates, the jobs are there, although in short supply.

Capt. Randy Preston of MIT's Navy ROTC says competition should not seem strange in what he called the nation's oldest meritocracy.

But he acknowledges that some cadets attending some of the nation's best institutions are frustrated.

"There are jobs for ensigns and second lieutenants," Porter said, noting that Carmen M. O'Shea '97 managed to secure one of the coveted intelligence-officer positions. "They're just very difficult to get. So if a recruiter says that they're available, that's not really misleading."

But some cadets do not want to risk serving in what the Army calls the "unrestricted" combat sector for four years-a time when they could be working as a lawyer, doctor or intelligence officer.

Jay F. Chen '00 said he found that educational delays and top jobs were uncertain prospects. After training in San Diego at the start of this summer, he left ROTC.

"The positions that I wanted I couldn't get unless I served for three years," said Chen, a Crimson editor. "I could have been stuck doing something I didn't really want to do."

Chen had his sights set on working as a human-intelligence officer or as a lawyer in the military court, known as the Judge Advocate General-Corps (JAG). He thought that as a Harvard alumnus the likelihood of landing such a job would be high, but after one year at ROTC he said he felt his chances were sufficiently slim to warrant leaving the program.

Chen says he may not have investigated his options in depth before signing on to the ROTC four-year scholarship. He also says recruiters sometimes underplay the difficulties cadets encounter in vying for top-level job access.

"There was an element of miscommunication," Chen said. "They made [the jobs] seem much easier to get than they actually are."

Still, Chen says he had no regrets. "I'm glad I joined, because I learned a new perspective on the military," he says.

The Scholarship Gamble

While many students enter the program with definite military career ambitions, others are drawn more by the economic benefits, a trend that military officials say does not concern them.

Scholarships-which are currently given to more than 80 percent of all ROTC cadets at MIT-cover four years worth of tuition, a $100,000 value. (The Navy currently gives awards to all its ROTC cadets at MIT.)

In return, cadets are expected to attend about five hours of class at MIT each week, undergo regular physical trainings, and serve an average of four years after graduation at an unrestricted military post.

ROTC officials say the high scholarship rate is a function of that expensive tuitions at local schools.

"That's what 70 to 80 percent of the freshmen say, and it's no surprise," Rutley says. "I mean, $100,000, a stipend and money for books-that's pretty attractive. Especially at expensive schools like Harvard and MIT."

For many students the economic motivation may take the front seat.

"I didn't want to go into the Air Force and the money was not a good enough incentive," says John B. Cearley '99, who left the program before his sophomore year.

Although Army ROTC participant Porter says he "can't imagine anyone would join ROTC just to pay for school," ROTC recognizes the drawing power of its scholarships. In an effort to persuade students to join, ROTC rules allow students to leave the program after one year without forfeiting that year's scholarship money.

Rolan S. Hernandez '99 says he was not the biggest fan of the Air Force when he joined two years ago in an effort to pay for college.

"Freshman year I wasn't too psyched about it, I just wasn't sure if I wanted to commit to the discipline," says Hernandez, who describes himself as not being "by nature a structured person."

But gradually Hernandez, whose sister participated in ROTC at Notre Dame, warmed to the program and he now has his eye set on an exciting military job after graduation.

"I'm shooting for a pilot slot," he says.

And Dunn, the Air Force cadet, is one of few students who signed up for ROTC without receiving a scholarship.

"I joined ROTC because I wanted to fly," he explains.

Academic Inflexibility

Sharmil S. Modi '99 was an avid Air Force cadet before he chose to leave ROTC in order to make an academic switch.

"I have nothing bad to say about the Air Force except to say that they were inflexible in a major choices," Modi says, adding that he misses the program and "the interesting, genuine and dedicated people in it."

Modi entered ROTC as a physics major on the advice of a high-school recruiter who told him he could "get out of it" after he got to college.

But when Modi decided to concentrate in economics after his first year, he said, he was faced with the choice of either settling for physics or leaving ROTC altogether, he said.

Although Modi won a scholarship for medical school, which would have permitted free choice of an undergraduate major, he would have been required to serve eight years in the Air Force at the end of his medical residency.

Modi ultimately chose to leave ROTC. "I wasn't sure at 18 that I wanted to be a doctor," he says, explaining that the combination of medical school, a residency and eight years in the Air Force might keep him committed until age 38.

Army ROTC official Rooney acknowledges that students who want to switch majors may encounter resistance from the Army if they're moving into "soft sciences" or humanities.

Rutley says the Air Force ROTC usually tries to assuage student concerns, while keeping paramount the military's need for trained professionals.

He recalled an MIT student who recently wanted to switch his major from a technical engineering field to mechanical engineering. Since Air Force MIT already had "too many" cadets in that area, however, the student's request was denied, and he was forced to choose between staying in ROTC and adjusting his academic interests.

"He chose to stay in the program," Rutley says. "We helped him work through his problems with specific courses. That was a case where his freshmen experience got him really excited about the program."

Cadets who leave the program after the start of their sophomore year may face sizable debts.

Suzanne E. Phillips '92 left Air Force ROTC after two years because she wanted to change her major from mathematics to English.

"It was not difficult to switch from one technical field to another, or from a non-tech to another non-tech, but not across the divisions," says Phillips, now a graduate student in English.

Phillips got by with loans from Harvard, a 15-hour-per-week job and an outside fellowship. But in the long run, Phillips says, leaving ROTC has left her in financial straits. She still owes the Air Force money for her first two years with the program.

"I think it is a really good program for...people who go in for the right reasons," she says. "For other people like me, it didn't work."

Be All That You Can Be

Some cadets say ROTC does provide sufficient academic flexibility.

Switching from Air Force to Navy ROTC and then changing concentrations, from physics to American history, proved a small challenge for David T. Potere '98, director of the Harvard ROTC Association.

"I was aware going into it that the [academic] program is pretty rigid," Potere says. "But I still had the breathing space to do what I wanted."

Potere emphasized that cadets chat about possible military careers just as civilian students discuss recruiting options or the job market.

"Where we'll fit in is part of the excitement," he says.CrimsonGrigory TovbisTRAINING REGIMEN: Air Force ROTC cadets stand at attention at open ranks inspection last week at MIT.

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