When Matt Mabutas puts on his Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets uniform, he thinks of all those who did the same before him.
“I feel extremely humbled,” said the rising sophomore who is majoring in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, minoring in leadership studies in the corps, and part of the Air Force ROTC. “The people who put this uniform on before I did, they were amazing. They built the corps into what it is now.”
Mabutas may have been speaking figuratively. But to a great degree, what he said is literally true.
This month, Mabutas will be among those cadets working summer orientation to explain the corps experience to the families of more than 400 first-year students, whose arrival will boost the corps’ enrollment over 1,100. It’s a far cry from the mid-1990s when, with enrollment below 500 overall, the program’s very future seemed in question. The corps’ inspiring resurgence is a credit to the perseverance and generosity of alumni who, decades ago, recognized the tenuous position the program was in and decided to do all they could to help.
Together, they have raised tens of millions toward cadet scholarships and served as volunteers to help ensure the program’s future. Today, roughly 80 percent of cadets receive Emerging Leader Scholarships, and ongoing fundraising may one day raise that to 100 percent. Meanwhile, philanthropy is making possible a new Corps Leadership and Military Science Building near Lane Hall, on the Upper Quad of Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Approved by the Board of Visitors in June, the $52-million, 75,500-square-foot building will bring together corps and ROTC programs now dispersed across several buildings. At the same meeting, the board also approved construction of a new residence hall for cadets, the third since 2015, which will allow the program’s enrollment to reach 1,400.
“The support of the university president, university leadership, and the Board of Visitors for these two initiatives is a strong reaffirmation for the mission of the corps and its relationship to a university that was built on the foundation of service to others,” said Commandant of Cadets Maj. Gen. Randal Fullhart.
David Lowe, a retired telecommunications executive who earned his business management degree in 1963 and serves on the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Alumni Board, agreed.
“I think it’s wonderful to see the administration recognizing the value of the corps and affirming that through their decisions,” he said. “Every day, every person who visits campus, they see young men and women in uniform and understand the sacrifices they are making or are prepared to make. It is the ever-present personification of our university motto Ut Prosim,” (That I May Serve).
The original living-learning community
Recent years have seen a dramatic expansion in the number of living-learning communities Virginia Tech offers its undergraduates through the Student Affairs. Many positive results have been shown from participating. First-year students in living-learning communities have higher GPAs, fewer conduct referrals, and higher rates of mentorship by faculty. Among the newer communities Virginia Tech has introduced are ones dedicated to arts and creativity, culture and identity, entrepreneurship, languages and global learning, and personal growth.
The oldest one offered, by far, is the Corps of Cadets, which dates back to the university’s founding in 1872.
“The Corps of Cadets exemplifies Virginia Tech’s foundational traditions and values, especially the spirit of service, something appreciated by all Hokies,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, who commissioned a Gallup survey that found students at the university ranked higher in well-being and engagement than their peers nationally. “Alumni tell us their participation in the corps is one of the defining experiences of their lives. Robust living-learning communities, like the corps, contribute a great deal to the unique Virginia Tech experience. Our students are more likely to thrive on campus, and the benefits continue in their personal and professional lives long after graduation.”
Being a cadet is an immersive, four-year experience designed to hone leadership skills that can be applied in careers in or out of the military. With its Corps of Cadets program, Virginia Tech is among the nation’s six senior military colleges. In a typical year, roughly 70 percent of graduating cadets earn commissions in either the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines. While a majority of cadets are members of ROTC programs, a significant percentage choose the Citizen-Leader Track, which allows them to benefit from the corps experience without a military obligation after graduation.
One such student is Viviana Pazos, a rising sophomore majoring in human nutrition, foods, and exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Like many cadets, she said her first-year experience wasn’t easy as she adjusted to a new lifestyle and learned to overcome challenges, but it was highly rewarding.
“In retrospect, being a freshman cadet was challenging, but when you finish you are a better person than when you started,” Pazos said. “You’re strong and more prepared to take on future challenges.”
Dedicated alumni make a difference
Corps alumnus Denny Cochrane earned his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1970. He served 30 years in the military and from 1996-2000 commanded the Army’s ROTC program at Virginia Tech. During that time, he was part of the effort to put the corps on a more solid footing by engaging alumni to support the program to greater degree. He’s stayed deeply involved, and is a member of the executive committee of the alumni board for the corps.
“Alumni said, ‘We’re not going to let the corps die,’” Cochrane said, thinking back to the mid-1990s. “We launched a campaign to engage alumni to support the Emerging Leaders Scholarship program. Once we got that going, the goal was growing the corps to 1,000 cadets.”
With more than 1,100 cadets enrolled for 2019-20, and the program poised to grow to 1,400 in the coming years, that effort clearly made a difference. Cochrane said the corps experience has always had a great deal to offer aspiring leaders, and the program’s resurgence has been extremely fulfilling to see.
“The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets is special,” he said. “It is an academic multiplier. We get a great education here, but we also get the leadership training through the corps, ROTC, and all the other experiences on and off campus. It makes the academic credentials even more powerful, and we have a national reputation for producing outstanding leaders.”
His fellow alumnus, Lowe, was equally gratified to see the strong position of today’s corps.
“I think the initiatives and involvement of the corps have even more meaning and value today than they did in my day as a cadet,” he said. “As I get to know the young men and women who are in the corps, it reaffirms my confidence in the future of this country.”