Cadets on Campus: The Life of an ROTC Student at Duke

by Amy Kramer, T’18

There’s something special about the bond you forge with your peers while doing pushups in the rain at 5:50 a.m. It’s akin to walking through the Pentagon and being stopped by every Duke alum wanting to reminisce about how great it is to be a Blue Devil. We’re proud to be at Duke, a campus that embraces the military and provides plenty of opportunities for professional growth within the national security space.

Cadet Life

On Thursday afternoons, amidst a sea of Duke blue, it is not hard to spot some camouflage passing in front of the chapel on Abele Quad. In uniform only on the days when ROTC labs are scheduled, Duke ROTC Cadets balance one desert-sand-colored boot in the military world, and one Birkenstock in the civilian one. Putting down rubber M4 rifles and picking up musical instruments, or swapping camo for brightly-colored dance team uniforms, cadets transition with ease and become more committed civic leaders in all their ventures across campus.

Opportunities for ROTC Cadets vary by department. Army Cadets each year participate in field training exercises at Camp Butner and Fort Bragg, attend a staff ride, and visit Washington D.C. to learn about military and national security policy. Air Force Cadets can participate in professional development training, national defense education and community service through the Arnold Air Society Program. Navy Cadets shadow enlisted sailors and junior officers on ships, subs or aviation squadrons. Navy Cadets also participate in a Capitol Leadership Conference each fall, through which they engage with Navy leaders in D.C.

All cadets can earn scholarships, shadow different specialties assigned to a base or pursue advanced critical language study such as Chinese, Arabic or Farsi. Most importantly, ROTC classes are open to all Duke students and no experience is required. If you have an interest in the structure or function of any of the service branches, or want to augment your Trinity College curriculum with a military history or military policy course, you are encouraged to do so.

Civilian Blue Devils

But opportunities for students to engage with military and policy leaders extend far beyond ROTC on-campus programming. Duke’s close proximity to both Fort Bragg and Washington, D.C. means that Cadets and civilians alike have access to military and national security education beyond the classroom.

The Duke Program in American Grand Strategy (AGS) is one example. Duke leveraged distinctive strengths in political science and public policy to create this signature program for students interested in national security policymaking. The mission is to raise the next generation of leaders by studying current strategists and scholars. Through the AGS program, students have access to advanced seminars, a distinguished speaker series, research and publication opportunities, summer fellowships and experiential education trips.

Duke is one of a few civilian institutions in the country that hosts annual staff rides – military history trips first conducted by the Prussians in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Blue Devils continue the tradition by adopting historic roles and studying past battles more deeply and intimately than is possible in a traditional classroom lecture. By studying past leaders, students understand not just the events that transpired, but the reasons why decisions were made. Students learn empathy and the value of varying perspectives in understanding past events and how they fit into the broader geopolitical context.

Recent staff rides hosted by the American Grand Strategy Program have included Normandy (WW2), Grenada (1983 Operation Urgent Fury), Vietnam (1968 Tet Offensive) and most recently WW1 (Hundred Days Offensive).

Many of these national security education programs are specifically oriented towards civilians in order to increase familiarity and understanding of the military, even though many Cadets also participate. For example, each year, civilians visit a Navy SEALs base and the Special Forces Operations Center at Fort Bragg. Duke is also one of the only universities to host War College Fellows through the Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program. These advanced military officers, usually Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels, spend a year on campus taking classes with students. Building relationships with these distinguished military officers is one of the best ways for Duke students to engage with the military.

National security studies would be incomplete without courses in intelligence. The Triangle Institute of Security Studies combines the strengths of Duke University, UNC Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University. Through this collaborative program, students may pursue a certificate in national intelligence, travel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, tour various national intelligence agencies, participate in the Annual Colloquium and Simulation and present senior theses to national security scholars. This four-year program thrives on cross-campus engagement and aims to contribute towards a more informed citizenry.

From Policy to Practice

Understanding that the future of national security requires more than just a background in political science, Duke tech-oriented students are encouraged to join the Duke Cyber Team. Sponsored by AGS and coached by an executive from the NSA, the Duke Cyber Team studies emerging cyber threats through weekly expert briefings from experts in industry, intelligence and academia. It also educates the Duke community on cutting-edge cyber issues and participates in the national Atlantic Council Cyber 9/12 Competition, competing and networking with cyber professionals in DC each year. Additionally, the Duke Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Duke Law School hosts the LENS Conference, attracting military and national security leaders to campus to engage with students on the complexity of cyber security and cyber operations.

One of the most public and well-received national security events on campus in recent years was the “Crisis Near Fiery Cross Reef” Winter Forum. In this comprehensive three-day South China Sea crisis simulation, Duke undergrads made high-stakes decisions in real time in a scenario in which a US Navy ship was attacked, sparking an international crisis. The goal, as articulated by Tim Nichols, one of the Winter Forum directors, was to “expose a broader slice of Duke to the relevant issues and thought processes around national security decision making.” This exposure is only one of the many special facets of the Duke experience for students interested in national security.