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March 2011

Feature Stories

Students Find Pathways to Success via ROTC

photo: Ashley Blacker;; and Bianca LopezSan Diego State University sophomore Ashley Blackwell is 19, blonde, slender and pretty. The first in her family to attend college, Ashley is a pre-nursing major with a full 14-unit course load. She’s also a cadet in SDSU’s Army ROTC (Reserve Officer’s Training Corps) program.

Only a couple of years ago Cadet Blackwell, as she’s known in ROTC, was a high school student in San Diego’s Sweetwater Union High School District, where she was in the AVID program.

“That’s a program for students who know that college is in their future,” she said. “It helped me learn some adult things like how to write a check, and how to take notes so I’d be successful in college.”

Participating in AVID also helped her learn to start setting goals and to work systematically to achieve them. “Staying on track,” Cadet Blackwell calls it.

Compact for Success

For over a decade, the Sweetwater district has been sending students to SDSU via a special program known as Compact for Success (CFS). The program guarantees admission to SDSU for Sweetwater students who can fulfill a set of requirements, most of them academic.

Traditionally, the Sweetwater district sent few of its graduates on to higher education. Cadet Blackwell says that lots of parents in her South Bay neighborhood never went to college or even graduated from high school, and she knew she wanted to go further. Already “on track” due to her AVID training, she had the necessary discipline to fulfill the CFS requirements, and she succeeded in finding her path to SDSU.

Structure, security, and a stable future

Once here, though, she realized she needed a plan to deal with the ongoing costs of attending college. Having taken advantage of AVID and CFS, she found a new avenue of opportunity in ROTC. Because of her earlier successes, she was a solid ROTC candidate and signed a contract that will see her through the remainder of college with a full scholarship, and an additional monthly stipend of spending money.

In exchange, Cadet Blackwell participates in demanding military coursework and training — in addition to her regular SDSU coursework — and she will serve in the Army for a set number of years after graduation. Because she will be entering the military as a college graduate, she’ll go in as an officer with a higher level of both pay and prestige.

Cadet Blackwell says she has always wanted to be a nurse, and joining ROTC will make this possible.  The discipline and structure of ROTC will help her stay on track and moving forward, she says, calling it “another resource to help keep me going, a safety net.”  

“I’ll have stability in the future, an automatic job as a nurse when I graduate. No job-hunting.  My future’s set.”

Cadet Blackwell says she’s grateful for the education and the chances at a bright future, but she also looks forward to making a positive difference.

“As an officer and a nurse, I’ll be giving back to the community.”

A rigorous schedule

Cadet Bianca Lopez is a sophomore studying criminal justice with plans for a future career as a police officer.   Like her friend and colleague Cadet Blackwell, she also made her way to SDSU following the Compact for Success route from a high school in the Sweetwater district.  On an Army ROTC scholarship, she too will graduate as an officer and serve a required term of active duty after leaving SDSU.

Growing up in a military house (her dad was in the Navy) Cadet Lopez finds the rigors of ROTC life familiar.

“Our family was all about structure, order, discipline, education, organization. We all had set chores. Start at this time, end at this time. By this time, have this done. Eat at this time, bed at this time.”

So Cadet Lopez knows how to structure her time. For instance, last semester she took 18 units including philosophy, political science, writing, geography, and a geography lab. In addition, she took part in required ROTC activities on Tuesdays (a military science class covering terminology and procedures) and Thursdays (off-campus, “hands-on” drills and exercises including activities like running 2 miles, push-ups, and sit-ups). Oh, and she held a part-time job, too.

With a schedule like this, Cadet Blackwell regularly finds herself on campus from early morning until evening, every Tuesday and Thursday.

“When I get home, I’m so tired I can’t even review my notes. I just basically eat something and go to sleep.”

Cadet Lopez agrees it’s a lot of work, but says it’s worth all the effort.

“Most college students don’t worry about being physically fit enough to pass a fitness test. I have extra classes they don’t have.” But on the plus side, for Cadet Lopez, being on an ROTC scholarship also means, “I have extra money, I’m preparing for my future, and I’m guaranteed a job later. So would I want to stress now or later? I’d rather be stressed out now.”

Competition among friends

In addition to personal stress, the competition between cadets adds another level of stress. They must attend regular drills and training sessions, stand at attention, march in formation – and take turns being in charge of group exercises.  Cadet Lopez says this teaches them “how to lead, how to take charge, how to work as a team. It’s like a competition, to show you can do it.”

A military ranking system that rates cadets according to three criteria: grades, physical fitness, and general success in the ROTC program. Those with a higher ranking get more choice about their future in the military – where they’ll be stationed, what positions and opportunities they’ll qualify for.

“Even Blackwell and I are in competition with each other,” says Cadet Lopez. “Someone who has one point more than you will win a position that maybe you wanted. So you strive to be your best.”

 It’s all very competitive, but it’s a competition among friends. “You have to thrive on competition, but everybody wants everyone else to succeed, too,” she explains.

Reaching out to younger students

Last fall, Cadets Lopez and Blackwell participated in the Compact for Success (CFS) 7th Grade Visit to SDSU. The campus visit brings 7th grade Sweetwater students and a parent to campus for a welcoming ceremony in the Viejas Arena, an information fair, entertainment and a campus tour. Lopez and Blackwell served as campus ambassadors, explaining how they made their way from Sweetwater to SDSU, and encouraging other students to do likewise.

“We talked to the kids and their parents, gave out recruiting stuff, Frisbees and calendars. Me and Lopez told our story to the kids. The importance of sticking with CFS, and staying in school, getting good grades,” Blackwell said. “It’s good for them to hear this stuff from someone other than their parents.”

A path to citizenship

photo: Lt. Martin JimenezAlso participating in the 7th Grade Visit was a colleague of Cadets Lopez and Blackwell. Lt. Martin Jimenez Contreras now serves as an assistant recruiter, in SDSU’s Army ROTC office. When he was a runner at Chula Vista High School, Jimenez was recruited by University of San Diego (USD) for their cross-country team. He did receive some financial assistance, but found himself unable to come up with the annual $45 thousand needed to attend the private school.

Jimenez was ready to drop out until he spoke to some ROTC recruiting officers. He signed up on the spot and suddenly his money problems were solved. From sophomore through his senior year, he paid nothing to attend USD and was able to graduate with bachelor’s degree in psychology.

ROTC scholarships provide tuition (up to $10 thousand), a generous book allowance ($1,200 per scholastic year), and a monthly tax-free stipend ($300 to $500, depending on class year). “I didn’t know schools offered things like this,” he said.

Joining ROTC also provided him an unexpected path to citizenship. Jimenez wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen when he started college. An ROTC advisor told him to apply for citizenship and specify that he wanted to become a military officer in U.S. Army. Within 5 months—that same summer—he had been granted citizenship (waiting time is usually measured in years, not months).

An opportunity for success

For Lt. Jimenez, as for cadets Blackwell and Lopez, ROTC has provided a true pathway to personal success. Cadet Lopez says she wishes more people knew about ROTC. “It’s a great opportunity, and I tell people, ‘You should do it, because it pays for college, and you have a guaranteed job after graduation. And it keeps you on track and teaches you how to be a leader.’”


SDSU Student Affairs • Bridges to Success