A day in the life of ROTC first-years

First-years Martayn Van de Wall and Mae Winglass talk about their inspiration for joining ROTC, their daily routines and the networking opportunities that come along with the program.


A Vanderbilt ROTC officer looks onto Vanderbilt stadium Photo by Brett Szklaruk

Alina Yu and Amy Rieth

The uniforms may be intimidating at first, but are these camo-clad students really that different from the rest of the Vanderbilt community? The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is a program offered at colleges around the nation that provides students preparation to become U.S. military officers while obtaining a college education. With such a rigorous program, this college experience may seem daunting to most students. 

To first-year Martayn Van de Wall, it’s an experience worth having. While being a first-year student majoring in economics, Van de Wall is an MS1, or first-year cadet, in Army ROTC.

“ROTC at its core will allow me to become an officer in the army, which is something I’ve always dreamed of being. It’s putting me on a good path throughout college, and it gives me a sense of purpose in my classes and in my life,” Van de Wall said.

 First-year Mae Winglass is another MS1 at Vanderbilt. While Winglass wasn’t involved in a similar program in high school, she has a grandfather who served in the Marine Corps and a sister who participated in Boston College’s ROTC. Both of these ties influenced Winglass in her decision to join ROTC, she said. Furthermore, Winglass was intrigued by the workforce exposure provided by the program, such as the ability to practice military skills and be introduced to the various military branches. 

“I knew that it would be really nice to have a job right out of college that would give me applicable experience and the army is a really good networking organization,” Winglass said .

So why Vanderbilt? Though Winglass was initially interested in programs at larger colleges, she was drawn to Vanderbilt’s community. She noted being impressed by the distinguished cadre, the officers responsible for training the unit, and motivated cadets on campus. During orientation, which began two days before move-in day, Winglass and her fellow cadets participated in activities such as canoe racing and paintball. In this setting, Winglass was able to connect with other ROTC members and ease into the training of the program. 

Similarly, Van de Wall said the small program threw him with a group of people much similar to a sports team.

“I think it provides a small community-type-feeling so you really get to know the other cadets well, and when I visited, you could feel that,” Van de Wall said. “With the people who guided me around, they gave me a good sense of what my experience was going to be like and definitely made me feel like a part of the program almost from the get go.”

According to Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Mount, Assistant Professor of Military Science, there are a total of 78 students in the ROTC program, with 13 Vanderbilt students in the MS1 class. Along with Vanderbilt students, the ROTC program in Nashville consists of students from Belmont University, Tennessee State University, Lipscomb University, Trevecca Nazarene University, Fisk University and Welch College. As all cadets train together on Vanderbilt’s campus, Mount views the variety of people involved as a great benefit to the program.

“They come from different backgrounds, different universities, different levels of scholastic achievement so they [the ROTC students] have a much more diverse opportunity to work with these other students,” Mount said. 

As a connected group of cadets, Van de Wall and Winglass complete rigorous training every week. For Winglass, physical training is from 5:50 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in which she exercises with fellow cadets for roughly an hour. Winglass also has a Leadership and Personal Development class that teaches her techniques such as land navigation, military customs and courtesies, map reading and various military hand signals. Following this class, Winglass attends a two to three-hour lab in which she practices her newly-acquired skills. Other techniques the cadets practice are first aid training, setting up bases, tactical maneuvering and learning army conduct codes. These activities are led and organized by senior (MS4) and junior (MS3) cadets as well as by cadre members. Despite being in a teaching position, the older ROTC members and cadre members are still approachable and personal, Wineglass said.

Van de Wall is also part of the Ranger Challenge Team, which is often described as the varsity sport of ROTC. This means Van de Wall has physical training throughout the whole week, with an additional two days of training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While it’s a huge time commitment, Van de Wall said he definitely finds many advantages to the program.

“It inspires you to work hard, keeps you on a good schedule and teaches you a lot about time management and leadership,”  Van de Wall said. “We haven’t really gotten into leadership positions yet as MS1’s, but just going out and inspiring your fellow cadets to keep going despite having to get to bed early and wake up early while working with test schedules I think are the biggest pros, just the life skills that you learn.” 

Though Winglass admits the early mornings can be tough, she appreciates the structured schedule of her ROTC life. The program primarily trains cadets for a life in the military, but the ROTC also helps cadets plan their future in general. Mount noted that he often has interviews with his cadets in order to help them start looking forward to their futures. 

“I try to drive into these kids as freshmen and MS1s that the more planning you can do now for the future, the less surprise you’ll have in the future,” Mount said. “The decisions you are making today are either gonna open or close the doors of tomorrow.”

Winglass has also been introduced to a breadth of opportunities through the ROTC program, such as the Cultural Understanding and Leadership Program (CULP). CULP is an international program through which ROTC students can explore jobs and studies abroad. Winglass has also been able to meet ROTC members who are involved in a variety of clubs across campus, reassuring her that she’ll easily be able to have a world of interests outside of ROTC.

Looking forward, Winglass will serve either four years active duty or eight years reserve commitment post graduation. She is considering going into military intelligence or logistics. Van de Wall intends to also join active duty post-graduation, most interested in joining active duty and going into infantry and aviation. 

“I think it’s nice in that it’s like a sorority: it helps you meet people and it helps you meet older people as well as students in your own grade,” Winglass said. “I’ve obviously gotten to meet a lot of cool people, and I have learned some cool stuff. I get to run around in a uniform, and I’m going to get field training.”

So next time you’re in the crowd at a football game and those students in uniform go out onto the field to do push-ups, there’s a chance they are a fellow student in your class.

“We’re pretty much just like other students. I’ve had people thank me for my service which is just pretty funny because we haven’t really done anything yet other than workout. Hopefully one day I will earn that honor, but people should treat us like anything else like their classmates and putting extra work on the side,” Van de Wall said.