Leadership from the ground up © Aug. 1, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications
Muggy heat draped the Green Mountains on an early July day. In much of Northfield, Vt., home of Norwich University, it seemed like siesta time. The hot breeze coming through the trees offered no relief from the stickiness.
For a group of boys and girls wearing black and squinting in the sunlight, it was especially uncomfortable—even without the burden of rifles, which they’d leaned against a white picket fence. Grouped in four clusters, these were high school students who had enrolled in the annual Drill Camp at Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college. Their T-shirt backs read, “There is no glory in practice. But without practice, there is no glory.”
One instructor coaxed six campers into formation. They performed an about-face and began marching in a sharp 1-2-3-4 pattern—building blocks of the complex marching sequences performed in parades and competition. “C’mon, it’s not that hot,” he said.
Actually, it was that hot. Standing in the shade sent rivulets of sweat down people’s backs. But when Michael Valentin, a Norwich student and drill master of the camp, hopped out of a truck to make sure things were running smoothly, he was as cool as a Popsicle. During a lunchtime meeting at the cafeteria, oblivious to the distracting clang of silverware and cafeteria chaos around him, Valentin focused on the training ahead, where toughness is par for the course. “Whatever we give out, they give back,” he said.
For most people, summer camp conjures warm and fuzzy memories of kids splashing in lakes and rivers, roasting marshmallows and hiking in the woods. But for Drill Camp and its sibling session—Future Leaders, where the focus is on learning leadership skills through physical challenge—picture something sharper: Two weeks of physical fitness training, uniform inspection and drill competition.
The warm and fuzzy part isn’t entirely absent. You’re likely to see that in staff members, who balance the intensity of showing high schoolers the rigors of cadet life with an upbeat, fun attitude to keep them engaged. And in teaching leadership, they learn a bit more about the discipline themselves.
Hailing from Florida, Arturo Diaz could be spending his summer on the beach. Instead, he’s chosen to return for his second year instructing Drill Camp—a 24-hour job, as staff are responsible for campers around the clock.
“This is the only place I’d rather be right now,” says Diaz over a plate of pizza and chicken nuggets during a rare break from the action. “I’m here to instill the same passion for drill that we have—we’re developing each of them to lead and take charge of their drill.”
Passion comes from positive leadership, explained Collins “Skip” Davison, director of recruiting for The Corps and camp director. “The Corps of Cadets is focused on training officers for the military and corporate America, the process of which is emotionally, physically and mentally demanding,” he said. “This is a tough nut to crack when being negative or using fear and intimidation are so much easier.”
This is what makes the heat of a July day bearable. While Diaz believes Drill Camp and Future Leaders Camp create a ripple effect of excellence among incoming freshman, that day there was also a ripple of laughter across the grass in front of Crawford Hall, where campers practiced drill.
“We crack a joke here and there, to help them smile—we’re not here to make robots,” said Valentin, adding that he began learning how to lead in a New Jersey high school of 3,600 students by focusing on ways to improve himself. “Change helps us become stronger, better than we used to be, and I think everybody who comes to this program understands that.”
For Drill Camp, that change might be as small as the welcome arrival of three large yellow Igloo coolers, dripping with condensation, or an adjustment to the schedule that allows for a cool dip in the nearby Dog River. Or, it may be as important as gaining the discipline to rise at 5:30 a.m. or the composure to lead by example, no matter how tired you are or how much a miserable July afternoon bears down on you.
“It’s definitely not easy,” says Diaz. “But at the end of the day, when you sit there and think about how much these people have grown, you can’t put a price on that.”