To infinity and beyond

In a first for UND, ROTC Cadet Erika Lillie will be commissioned in the U.S. Space Force in March

At a ceremony in December, Erika Lillie was recognized for her historic, upcoming commission in the U.S. Space Force. In this photo, Lillie takes the Oath of Office being administered by her father, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Pete Lillie. Image courtesy of Erika Lillie.

From the time she was an eighth-grader with the chance to go to space camp, Erika Lillie was intrigued by space.

Like a lot of kids, she thought it would be cool to be an astronaut and reach for the stars.

This past year, the inspirations of her youth were on Lillie’s mind as she looked at the road ahead. At UND, she had nearly completed all four years of her college education while enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

Then she was faced with a choice: move ahead with an officer’s commission in the Air Force, or take the opportunity to forge a unique path in the U.S. Space Force.

“When I got the email last summer saying we were able to volunteer for the Space Force, I knew it wasn’t necessarily a guaranteed thing,” said Lillie, now graduated and waiting for her first assignment. “But I felt my heart was pulling me toward working on satellites and space launch programs rather than airplanes. So I figured, why not?”

Image courtesy of Erika Lillie.

Moreover, “astronaut” might sound pretty cool, but “Guardian” has a nice ring to it, too. So, later this month, Lillie will be commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the country’s newest military branch, joining more than 4,100 Guardians who are in the Space Force today. The former cadet will also be the first UND student to enter the Space Force by means of the ROTC as an O-1 or Second Lieutenant.

“I learned a lot during my time at UND, both in the classroom and from the ROTC,” Lillie said. “I also learned how to be myself, and how to step out of my comfort zone.

“I think that’s what I’m doing in joining a branch that’s only a year old – there are a lot of unknowns along with that.”

Finding footing at UND

The “Why not?” approach is what shaped Lillie’s experience at UND, as well as how she arrived at the University in the first place.

Originally from Hastings, Minn., and the oldest of four, Lillie wasn’t too sure about what she wanted to do after high school. Growing up in a military family, with her father making his career in the U.S. Army, helped her narrow things down.

“My dad wanted me to engage with the military in some fashion, whether through ROTC or the military academies, but it wasn’t something I actually considered until my senior year of high school,” Lillie recalled.

UND ended up being a “perfect” distance from home for her, and also offered the programs that she had in mind. In high school, she had excelled in math and science. Engineering seemed like a likely path, and Lillie was intrigued by the world-class John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

“I arrived under the impression that aerospace engineering was an actual major, as opposed to it being more of a degree focus, so it turned out I hadn’t done my research,” she said with a laugh. “So I went into the engineering program.”

After hearing pitches from each department under the engineering umbrella, by way of an “Intro to Engineering” course, Lillie arrived at Electrical Engineering as her major. Taking on a minor in math, she said she never regretted her choice as a freshman.

“The professors were great,” Lillie remarked. “Many of them teach with the understanding that we’re not going to have complex formulas memorized right away, and they were always helpful in our work.”

Stepping out of her shell

When it came to her joining up with the Air Force ROTC detachment at UND, Lillie had even less of an idea of what she was getting herself into.

She figured she would be learning “basic military stuff,” like how to march in formation and how to be a good team member. There would at least be some training involved, she remembers thinking.

But enrolling in ROTC became Lillie’s opportunity to step out of her shell, as she phrased it. As she progressed from freshman to sophomore and ultimately to senior, Lillie took on increasing amounts of responsibility for her cadre of cadets. From planning physical training to commanding the honor guard to serving as a Vice Wing Commander, Lillie ended up thriving in the Air Force ROTC environment.

“I went into this thinking it would be good to at least try, but I ended up really liking everything about it,” said Lillie of her ROTC journey.

Detachment 610’s commander, Lt. Col. Jason Evans, said everyone is proud of Lillie’s accomplishments and excited for her future in the Space Force.

“I believe Erika Lillie will be the first of many USSF officers to commission from our detachment,” Evans said. “She excelled as an electrical engineering major, and I’m confident that the Space Force, as well as the nation, will greatly benefit from her leadership as she develops exciting technologies in the space domain.”

Lillie’s entire family was able to be present for the commissioning ceremony in December. From left to right, Tracie, her mother, and sisters Nicole, Brooke, Tori and her father Pete stand with Erika on-stage. Image courtesy of Erika Lillie.

A pathway for future cadets

Even though she filled out her first “job preference” form nearly two years ago, it wasn’t until November that Lillie found out about her future in the military.

Evans had called Lillie into his office, and Maj. James Franciere entered soon after. Lillie’s job choices were led by space operations and engineering, respectively, so the cadet was ready to accept her new charge.

Franciere then asked Lillie, “Do you know what ‘spings’ are?”

After a moment of confusion, Lillie realized that her superior officer was creating a new word for “space wings.” Lillie was then told she would be an electrical engineer in the Space Force.

In comments to UND Today, Franciere admitted his envy of young officers such as Lillie who are going into a brand new branch of the military to start their careers.

“They have so much opportunity ahead of them,” said Franciere, the subject of a recent UND Today feature about his lateral transfer to the Space Force from the Air Force. “I have friends revamping training, acquisition processes, command and control, intelligence and other areas that will not only set us up for national security success, but also for individual success as officers and enlisted members innovating solutions for space.

“Cadet Lillie gets to be at the front of this new way of defending the nation.”

In a recent news story, Chief Master Sgt. of the Space Force Roger Towberman agreed. “The top enlisted leader of the U.S. Space Force compared the service to a startup that is trying to be ‘a little bit more adventurous’ than the established branches of the military,” reported.

Speaking Feb. 25 at the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Warfare Symposium, Towberman described the other services as “blue chip” organizations” and “awesome institutions” while the Space Force is more akin to an unconventional startup, according to the news service.

Continues the story, “all military services share core principles and a ‘desire to win,’ Towberman said. ‘We want the things that everybody wants,’ he added. But as a new branch that is being built from the ground up, the Space Force is trying to balance tradition against a desire for innovation and for doing things differently.”

Perhaps naturally, Lillie is anxious to see where her first assignment takes her. But by way of her personal growth at UND, she’s raring to go regardless of nerves. She’s looking forward to more chances to try new things, make contributions and find opportunities in her career for “Why not?”

“The idea of making history at UND is a good feeling, but I guess I haven’t thought about it that way,” Lillie said. “Hopefully I’m creating a pathway for others, so they know that this is a route they can take if they go for it.”