Navy ROTC and veteran-friendly campus earn a national salute
Yale senior Emily Quisenberry steps lively from her room in Grace Hopper College to meet friends outside Sterling Memorial Library on a bright Friday afternoon. She’s got all the gear she needs to greet the rest of her day on campus: cell phone, laptop, backpack — and military fatigues.
Quisenberry’s buddies, more than two dozen of them, also are dressed in camo. As they grab their packs and head to Sudler Hall for their weekly Yale Naval ROTC military science lab, their uniformed presence barely draws notice from fellow students walking by or sitting at outdoor tables.
“We still get the occasional glance, but anyone who’s been on campus for a while knows we’re here,” she says.
It’s just one indication of how seamlessly Yale’s Naval and Air Force ROTC programs have threaded themselves into the life of the campus. Yale’s 34 Navy ROTC midshipmen and 60 Air Force ROTC cadets avail themselves fully of all things Yale, from residential college activities to scientific research to varsity sports to student government. They’re regular Yale students, with the difference that they’re simultaneously training to serve as officers in the United States military.
Their hard work and commitment, and that of their ROTC leaders, is paying off: folks outside of Yale are taking full and admiring notice of the university’s ROTC programs and veteran-friendly campus.
The Pentagon recently singled out Yale University and the Yale Naval ROTC program for a major national award — the U.S. Department of Defense Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Partnership Excellence Award for 2021-2022. It is an award given to only one of the nation’s 63 Navy ROTC units each year. Meanwhile, a ranking by U.S. News & World Report rated Yale first in the nation as a school for veterans and active-duty service members.
“This is who we are,” said Jack Beecher, Yale’s veteran and military liaison. “Having members of the military at Yale and having Yale graduates in the military — it’s good for veterans, good for Yale, and good for the country.”
Yale President Peter Salovey called it an honor for Yale to host both an Air Force ROTC detachment and a Naval ROTC unit.
“And I could not be prouder of the ROTC students on campus,” he said. “Members of Yale’s ROTC program bring distinctive perspectives and experiences, and they inspire others to serve the community and improve the world. I am grateful for their commitment to our nation and appreciate the outstanding leadership they exercise among their peers at Yale.”
Captain Ron Withrow, commanding officer of Yale’s Naval ROTC program, said the national recognition is an affirmation of hard work by students, Naval ROTC faculty and staff, and Yale faculty and staff to reach an overall standard of excellence.
“This award from the Department of Defense is a joint honor for Yale and for our program,” Withrow said. “It recognizes that the collaborative relationship we have with Yale is working. We may be a smaller unit, but we offer a unique pedigree.”
Smart, hardworking, and diverse
In a letter to President Salovey announcing the honor, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III lauded the Yale program.
“The quality of the officers sent by NROTC into the Navy and Marine Corps is consistently exceptional,” Austin wrote. “Beyond being smart and hardworking, their diversity is an added benefit to the fleet. A high percentage of Yale midshipmen are female, and they commission into areas of the active duty force that are underrepresented by women, such as the Marine Corps and the Navy submarine community. A significantly higher proportion of Yale midshipmen are ethnic minorities than are found within the officer corps of either the Navy or Marine Corps, further contributing to increased diversity in both military services.”
Quisenberry is a prime example of the program’s strength.
A Baltimore native, Quisenberry joined Navy ROTC because she wants a career with deep meaning — and she wants to travel the world. A chemical engineering major at Yale, she’s training through Navy ROTC to be a nuclear engineer. She said she’s particularly proud to be a resident of Grace Hopper College, named for the pioneering computer scientist who served as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.
As for choosing Yale, she fell in love with the place while walking around the campus and talking with students.
“The people here are some of the smartest, most passionate people you’ll ever meet,” she said. “It’s very motivating.”
Quisenberry’s growth as a leader — she is the battalion executive officer for the unit — coincides with ROTC’s emergence as a small but vibrant facet of student life.
“As I’ve gone through my years here, I’ve incorporated the Yale part of my life much more with the ROTC part of my life,” she explained. “That’s also what has happened with ROTC on campus, overall.”
Lt. Samantha Kitts, junior naval science instructor and nuclear power officer for Yale NROTC, said during her two years at Yale she’s noticed a similar confidence among midshipmen.
Kitts attributes much of Yale’s ROTC success to the high level of mentoring that midshipmen receive from faculty, staff, and guest speakers who visit campus. She recalled one student, for example, who met one-on-one with a visiting admiral to talk about research projects the midshipman had recently completed.
“We bring in great students and they really put in the work,” Kitts said.
On track at the center of gravity
Some of that work happens just after sunup on an outdoor track behind the Yale baseball field.
The midshipmen, dressed in yellow t-shirts and blue shorts, take part in regular physical fitness testing as part of their NROTC training. It is as much a part of their experience as the naval science labs devoted to military protocol, tactics, technology, and mission preparedness.
Quisenberry is one of the first to arrive. She helps set up the event, which includes timed testing for push-ups, a 1.5-mile run, and holding a plank position.
Among the first-year midshipmen here is Andrew Terkildsen, from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is the son, grandson, and nephew of military veterans. He lives at Berkeley College, plans to major in computer science, and has joined the lightweight crew team.
“Yale is a place to explore multiple disciplines,” Terkildsen said. “I felt this was a place where I could reach for my aspirations. The presence of Navy ROTC here is a big part of it.”
Out at the track, on the far side of Yale Field, the sun has just risen over the tree line. The midshipmen start with push-ups. They line up on the grass inside the track, half of them furiously bobbing up and down, the other half offering verbal encouragement and counting.
“Okay, you’ve got two minutes!” says an instructor holding a clipboard.
Nearby, Withrow and several other instructors and staff members are on site, taking stock of the young women and men they’re helping to mold. Withrow notes that it was just a decade ago, in the fall of 2012, that ROTC programs resumed at Yale after a decades-long hiatus dating back to the Vietnam War.
Now, 10 years later, the programs are resurgent and pulling in plaudits from the highest levels of the U.S. military.
“Our center of gravity is right here, the midshipmen we’re training,” he said. “When I commission them as officers, after their four years of a Yale education, knowing I’m sending to the fleet the most capable, competent officers, then I know we’ve succeeded.”