Among many American colleges, a common sight is seeing students dressed in military outfits running across campus before dawn. These students — or 'cadets' — are a part of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, more commonly known as ROTC.

Many students know that ROTC has something to do with the army, but never learn more about what ROTC cadets do or what they are specifically training for.

History of ROTC

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is a training program that puts students on track to become an officer for the United States Navy, Army or Air Force.

The origins of ROTC can be traced back to 1819, with the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy — now known today as Norwich University. Fittingly, the school’s mascot is currently the 'cadets.' The school allowed students to integrate military training into their curriculum.

If there was ever an emergency that required soldiers, the students would be available to serve in the Army.

Other universities started adopting this idea, with an increase during the Civil War with the Morrill Act of 1862. The law created colleges that would teach “agriculture and the mechanic arts” from available federal land, with the idea of teaching "military tactics" being mentioned in passing.

The term ROTC was first used in the National Defense Act of 1916, which was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson.

In addition to creating ROTC, this law focused heavily on the National Guard and doubled the amount of drills required, tripled their amount of training per year and put payment for these changes in the hands of the federal government.

Within 12 years, ROTC was established in 225 colleges. That number grew over time, and today 1,100 colleges and universities in the United States offer ROTC programs. This is due in part to the passage of the Solomon Amendment of 1996, which can deny federal funding to colleges and universities if they do not provide ROTC training.

In addition to denying federal funding, the Solomon Amendment allows grants military recruiters access to students' private information such as address, date of birth or any information regarding academic status, to name a few.

What Is ROTC Now?

ROTC has changed a lot over the years from its inception.

Lieutenants Colonel Eric Harrison, assistant professor of Military Science at RIT, and Jacob Jendrey — RIT's ROTC commander — described the ROTC program as taking additional military preparation, such as physical training, in addition to being a full time student.

Harrison described ROTC as a student-run program where cadets are directing and teaching a lot of what ROTC does.

“If we do physical training tomorrow morning for our workout, it’s the cadets, the students that are planning and teaching,” Harrison said. “This is a four year ... leadership development program.”

Landon Nolta, a fourth year Business Management major and cadet in ROTC, has noticed the effects of the leadership training ROTC offers.

“The leadership training I've gotten has directly translated to business management,” Nolta said. “It’s a people-focused program first. It trains individuals how to lead other individuals.”

ROTC offers a financial incentive to students as well. According to Jendrey, the program pays around $100,000 per cadet. The money goes towards education, room and board, book fees and a monthly stipend.

ROTC also helps students creating lasting friendships through adversity. Overcoming a challenge with other people creates a connection, and that’s what ROTC looks to accomplish.

“If you’re up at six o’clock in the morning and you’re doing pushups in the wet grass next to someone who's doing the same, you start to build trust and friendships very quickly,” Jendrey said.

"If you’re up at six o’clock in the morning and you’re doing pushups in the wet grass next to someone who's doing the same, you start to build trust and friendships very quickly."

Criticisms of ROTC

Complaints regarding ROTC and the military as a whole are nothing new.

During the Vietnam War and before the passage of the Solomon Act, many colleges stopped providing ROTC training as unfavorability of the war grew including Harvard, which to this day does not have its own ROTC program.

The students of the University of Michigan in 1968 held a sit-in protesting ROTC and the military's involvement on the campus. Protests on college campuses became so popular that cadets were instructed to not wear their uniforms while on school grounds.

ROTC does more than 'boots on the ground' wartime work. Harrison and Jendrey mentioned how there are Army soldiers aiding in humanitarian relief in Haiti and supporting economic development in South America. Some are even helping with the COVID-19 response here in the United States.

“War isn’t the only thing we can be useful for,” Harrison said.

"War isn't the only thing we can be useful for."

Another major criticism of ROTC and the U.S. Army as a whole is a lack of diversity.

The overrepresentation of white men in the Army is no secret. It’s so prevalent in fact that Lieutenant Colonel Nicole R. Spears of the United States Army War College, located in Carlisle, Penn., wrote a report calling for the recruitment of more diverse cadets in ROTC programs. The Army itself even highlighted a talk given by Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning about how diversity is the key to the success of the Army.

The military has a history of discrimination of diverse citizens, from Don't Ask, Don't Tell — a law that banned openly gay military members from service from 1994 to 2011, to the number of sexual assaults reported in the military. There is also a lack of non-white officers throughout the entire military. Combined all of these aspects, people from marginalized communities may not see any benefit to joining the Army.

“The Army is supposed to be a reflection of the country that we support, right? And we’re a very diverse country, whether it be gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation,” Jendrey  said. “Our country should see themselves reflected in [the Army’s] composition.”

RIT's ROTC program has made an effort to expand into more diverse demographics. Harrison describes how 40 percent of ROTC’s first term students are women.

“I wish we could say we’re hitting home runs on this. It’s hard, but we are making an effort,” Jendrey said.

The ROTC program has been a staple of universities for over 100 years, and that idea isn’t changing anytime soon. ROTC will continue to train leaders of whatever field cadets decide to join, and help them make friends along the way.