ROTC programs educate next generation of leaders

Cadets trained to serve their country, start a career

The last four years have been beyond busy for Michael McColister. The Fayetteville resident has been studying business at Valdosta State University, working at a nearby airport and participating in his school’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) program. But with graduation looming, McColister says the hard work has paid off.

After tossing his cap in the air this month, McColister will head off to a career in the U.S. Air Force. His initial commitment: 10 years.

“I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in aviation and be an Air Force officer,” McColister said. “So I had no reservations making a commitment for that long."

As a cadet in Valdosta’s AFROTC program, McColister is part of a competitive program with 85 men and women who devote additional time to classes, physical training and community service. As a sophomore, he was selected for an AFROTC scholarship, which includes tuition costs beyond his HOPE scholarship and a semester stipend for books.

But the best aspects of the program come after graduation, said Lt. Col. Marsha Aleem, commander of AFROTC Detachment 172 at Valdosta State.

“First, I stress the amazing opportunity to serve in the world’s finest Air Force,” said Aleem, who has led the Valdosta State program for three years. “They will challenge themselves in ways they won’t in a corporation, all while being able to provide for their families. After college in this economy, where will you be able to walk into a job and have a rewarding career?”

The majority of students come to the program initially with a desire to serve their country, Aleem said.

“Many of these students were in elementary school when 9/11 happened, and for a good bit of their lives we have been in Iraq or Afghanistan,” she said. “They want to contribute where they feel they can. In addition, many of our cadets have parents who are military members, so they understand what sacrifice means.”

Acceptance into the AFROTC ranks requires students to pass rigorous character reviews, Aleem said.

“You don’t sign up and automatically get in; our standards are actually higher than the Air Force because we want to ensure that we’re giving them quality leaders,” she explained. “Our character requirements include no drugs, no underage drinking, no issues at school and they have to meet our weight standards. We vet them very thoroughly.”

Once accepted, cadets are extremely busy.

“The amount of time they put in is like having a part-time job,” Aleem said. “There are academic classes and something we call leadership laboratory that includes physical fitness three times a week. They’re up early in the morning — before most students are even awake — for that. They are also involved in the community with activities.”

To fit everything in, McColister has had to manage his time well.

“Along with my normal school work — about 15 hours of courses — I have three days a week of physical training and aerospace studies classes,” he said. “In addition, we have a leadership laboratory class that meets every Thursday, so I’m really taking more like 18 hours. I’ve tried not to have a job while I’m doing all this, but this last year, I’ve also worked at the Valdosta Regional Airport.”

McColister got a taste of college ROTC life when he was a student at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, where he participated in the Air Force Junior ROTC program.

“When I got to Valdosta, I almost didn’t pursue ROTC because I didn’t get a scholarship. It was extremely competitive,” he said. “But during my first year here, I was selected for a scholarship.”

The training prepared McColister for the next step on his journey: pilot training in Mississippi.

“I leave Sept. 30,” he said. “I can’t wait. I may even wind up making a career of it. That’s only 20 years, so at this point, it’s definitely a consideration.”

ROTC programs are offered at many Georgia universities, including Clayton State, Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Southern Polytechnic, Mercer, Kennesaw State and the University of Georgia .