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Katie Potter ’18, left, and Brooke Wilson ’18

Leadership on the Double

For one, it was part of a dream she’s worked toward since she was a kid. For the other, it was a desire to step outside her comfort zone and try something new.

Katie Potter ’18, a communication major with a leadership minor, aspired to serve in the United States Army for years. Brooke Wilson ’18, also a communication major with a leadership minor, needed an elective to fulfill a leadership course requirement and decided to forego the typical classroom setting in order to try an ROTC course, which included a class in military science, labs on military tactics and early morning PT sessions.

Whether it was 5-mile runs before dawn, swimming fully clothed in the Fox River or marching over the bridge during sunrise, the two students (whose friendship began two years ago) did it together – Potter as an ROTC cadet, and Wilson as a civilian student.

On joining the ROTC/enrolling in the ROTC leadership course

Potter: I always felt this sort of patriotic calling to be a part of something that was bigger than just me, just Katie Potter. Ever since I was little, the national anthem has been my favorite song. I get chills every time I listen to it. So, I always knew that something in me wanted to serve.

Wilson: I added a [leadership] minor, so I actually had to take a course. I had been friends with Katie, and she said, “you know, other people have done it in the past, it’s not that bad. You should give it a try.” … I was petrified all summer [beforehand]. … [My friends] all laughed and said I wasn’t going to make it, but I did. 

On life as a cadet:

Potter: I’m a cadet first and I’m a student second. My sophomore year of ROTC is when I raised my right hand, I took the oath, and I contracted into the ROTC program. Ever since then, it’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. … I was granted the opportunity to go to Cabo Verde in Africa with the Army, I did a cultural/language-understanding program with them with civilians and did humanitarian aid there. … [ROTC] has led me to a lot of cool places, and I’ve met some really cool people.

Wilson: Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, we did a 6 a.m. PT; this includes group ability runs that went anywhere from 3 to 5 miles, depending on how much time. And then we had a class and lab every week … learning how to survive in the military – we went through different practices of how to be a leader, and how to apply your leadership concepts. We would do practical exercises, like we blew up a bridge, and just tried to focus on tactical drills. It doesn’t really apply to me or what I want to do after I graduate, but it was really interesting and gave me an understanding of what the Army actually is, and it gave me a good appreciation 
of what people [in the military] do.

On life as a student:

Potter: It gets frustrating, because a lot of students can stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, doing their papers. But when you have to get up at 5 to get ready for PT, it cuts a few hours off your sleep schedule. But it’s worth it. I remember as a freshman, putting on the uniform for the first time, and just being, like, “Wow, this is so cool. I can’t believe I’m a part of this team and this family.”  

Wilson: Being a college senior, there’s definitely things that I’d rather be doing at night. I’d rather be going out to hang out with my friends, but I’d be like, “Sorry, guys. I’ve got to be up at 5 in the morning.” It’s really just about prioritizing your life, and [the ROTC course] really made me think there’s way more to life than experiencing nightlife. I think my first sunrise with ROTC was like the coolest thing in my life. We were running along the Fox River Trail; I was dying, I hated it. Everyone was encouraging me. I looked over and the sun was rising up against the river. I felt – I’m not actually enlisting, but I felt like I was there for a bigger purpose, to actually learn something and take something out of it. Prioritizing that, realizing that moments like that are why you want to experience things and get involved and try things while you’re in college, is major.

On leadership and personal growth:

Potter: I’ve been a leader in Dance Marathon for 2½ years. Brooke and I are both officers in Best Buddies, which helps foster friendships between students and people who have disabilities. ROTC encouraged me to get involved on campus, and when I did, that just helped me to grow as a person. Looking back at how I was in high school, I was not very disciplined, just this girl with a lot of opinions who didn’t know the right way to express them. I was pretty lost and didn’t know really what I was going to do with myself. ROTC provided that discipline and a more structured, stable environment for me to figure out who I was. … It helped me really find my place.  

Wilson: [The course] gave me more leadership ability. I really want to get into social media and marketing. … Within that position, you have to make your own rules, you have to make your own set schedules, and I feel like ROTC really gave me some of those tools that I can practice later in life. I feel like it’s easier to talk in front of my peers now. I walked in knowing three people in ROTC from other ways and other paths. But I walked in and I felt like I was immediately part of a family. It just kind of gives you those skills to be able to talk in front of people you don’t know, and take charge. … In a sense, everyone is a leader in the Army. If you have something to say, you’re allowed to say it, no matter what rank you are.

[The ROTC course] is a whole mental game, and I feel like it’s changed my mental stability 110 percent. … I learned my limits. Playing sports and softball, I had to run 60 feet. Going from 60 feet to 5 miles … I feel like I just gained so much. Resilience is a huge, key factor in this entire program. I think I learned a lot. It was more than just leadership application, it was actually a life-changing experience.

On camaraderie:

Potter: [In ROTC] we lead by example. We’re trying to raise a bunch of leaders here, so if you can’t do the workout, why would any of your subordinates do the workout? We say nobody is done until the last man is done. [During PT runs] we have the whole company go back out and run back with whoever is the last person to come in.

All the people at Green Knight Co., they’re all getting up early, they all have hard majors, they’re all involved on campus – you’re never alone. If you were to complain about something, that would just be not fair, because we’re all going through the same thing. 

Wilson: What I found most encouraging was – I hate running, and I’m going to keep saying it – and I was always the last in the pack, and every time we would finish a run and I’d be way behind, the entire program would come back and circle around and come get me. … We’re only as strong as our weakest link.

Going into it, I thought the Army is just, “left, right, left,” very hard, very goal-driven. But I walked into it and I walked out as part of a family. It was only a semester, but I grew friendships and … feel like I actually meant something to someone.

The big picture:

Potter: There are those moments where I’m running and think, “I hate this.” But then I think, “What other college student is doing this right now?” Every morning, we say the Soldier’s Creed, which is a good reminder of why I’m here and what is my duty as a soldier and as an American. It just keeps you grounded and keeps you coming back to why I’m here and what I’m doing. … I’m so amazed at how cool this program is and how honored I am to be a part of it. … It’s been cool to have Brooke see what we’re
all about.

Wilson: There was this one time we were marching on the bridge, and it was like the coolest thing I’ve seen in my entire life. … We were walking up the bridge and they were holding the American flag at the front, and I was all the way at the back. The sunrise was coming up over the bridge, and it was just the coolest thing. I felt very patriotic and lucky to be a part of the program this semester. 

You kind of have to look at it as a bigger picture, that it’s not just about you.

March 20, 2018