For the cadets that stay, the long runs and push-ups pay off

As students are reaching for the snooze button, members of the ROTC Alpha Company of the Trojan Battalion have already completed a four-mile run and more than 200 sit-ups and push-ups — all by 7 a.m.

And this is just the beginning of their day.

Step in line · ROTC students, who are often seen marching around campus, start their training early in the morning, participating in physical drills to train them for military service. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

Although they’re often seen around campus, very few people actually know what it means to be an Army ROTC student.

“People need to understand that we’re not just wearing uniforms and running around campus,” said James Wise, enrollment and scholarship officer for USC Army ROTC.

The Army ROTC is a leadership course that is part of a student’s curriculum. Through classes, leadership labs, physical training and field training exercises, students learn firsthand what it takes to lead others, motivate groups and conduct missions as an officer in the Army.

“We recruit under certain criteria called SAL: Scholar, Athlete, Leader,” Capt. Paul H. Ruopp III said. “We want people who are smart, athletic and who have a natural leadership quality.”

Every cadet must apply and be accepted to USC before they can apply to join ROTC.

“The biggest misconception of ROTC students is that we’re not smart and that we’re all meatheads,” said Cadet Dennis Caserza, a senior majoring in computer science.

Reasons for joining ROTC vary. Some join as an opportunity to pay for college while securing a future in the military — all ROTC members are given scholarships — while others wish to continue a lineage of military service in their family.

But it’s not the decision to enroll in ROTC that makes these cadets unique — it’s the reason they stay.

Only 65 percent of ROTC sophomores stay on for their junior year, Wise said. By the end of junior year, however, the retention rate jumps to 95.4 percent.

The program is not for the faint of heart or weak in mind, Wise said. Cadets have to commit eight to 10 hours a week as well as complete a military science course and weekly leadership labs.

Upon graduation, most ROTC students will be commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army. They will endure six to nine months of training where they will be in charge of a platoon of 30 to 60 members, Wise said.

But the ROTC program is more than preparation for the armed forces. It instills structure, discipline, time management skills and initiative in its cadets.

“ROTC doesn’t just teach you about military tactics on the battlefield and physically train you,” Caserza said. “ROTC motivates and inspires you to reach your full potential in all aspects of your life.”

Cadet John Graff, a junior majoring in English and print journalism, said ROTC has taught him both leadership skills and personal discipline.

“I haven’t found any other organization that asks this much from me on a daily basis,” he said.

Being in ROTC demands great sacrifice and selflessness, cadets said.

“As a graduate student, I have a 16-hour internship, five graduate school classes and a lot of reading. In addition to that, ROTC requires [physical training] Monday through Thursday every morning and two additional classes,” said Cadet Cassandra Rush, a graduate student studying social work.

Many ROTC students are involved in Greek organizations, student groups, marching band and athletic groups on campus. Cadet Chris Cheng, a junior majoring in international relations, will be the Undergraduate Student Government president next year.

Approximately 30 percent of ROTC cadets are female. Although ROTC is predominately male, the expectation for women to perform is no less. They run alongside the men, do the same physical conditioning and do not expect any accolades for it.

“ROTC students form a bond that is hard to find elsewhere on campus, as we constantly challenge ourselves and overcome difficulties both individually and as a group,” Caserza said.

There is an expectation to see the individual as part of something greater than one’s self.

“ROTC asks us to put aside every little insecurity and anxiety that we have in our own private lives, be invulnerable in front of the group and be a source of inspiration,” Graff said.