Female cadets indicate ROTC ‘about face’
UND alum and ROTC commander uses adventure and engagement to recruit larger, more diverse class
Nicole Gannucci and Kelli Dean-Hendricks share a lot in common.
They both hail from Twin Cities suburbs – Gannucci from Cottage Grove and Dean-Hendricks from Woodbury.
They’re both UND undergrads pursuing careers in nursing. And last fall, as members of UND’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), they strapped up and rappelled down the front face of Columbia Hall.
“I’m a thrill seeker. I’m not scared of things at all. But…,” sophomore Gannucci recalled, “you get up there, and you realize, this is pretty high up!”
“I got off that roof as quickly as possible because those Swiss seat harnesses are not the most comfortable thing in jeans,” freshman Dean-Hendricks laughed. A backward-facing descent down one of UND’s largest buildings was just the kind of undertaking UND alum Lt. Col. Jason Murphy wanted to reincorporate into ROTC when he returned to campus and took over as commander in May 2016.
“We wanted to bring the adventure back to ROTC,” Murphy said, explaining that his past experience as a cadet took him out of the normal classroom and physical training and threw him into exciting situations. “But it’s not just about learning things like rappelling. It’s about learning attention to detail, confidence and overcoming fear.”
The shot of adrenaline to ROTC’s system is working. Not only have cadet classes risen in recruitment over three semesters, but the female population of the program has also climbed from 12 percent to an incredible 34 percent – well above the 20 percent national standard.
“Leaders don’t come in a gender. It’s a fallacy to think that,” Murphy said. “Great leadership is in many of the people who come through the door, and we try to attract that kind of talent.”
More than pushups
So what is getting more students – including the women – interested in ROTC?
Murphy points to two main components: more vibrancy and more engagement with campus and community partners.
In the last year and a half, Murphy and his team have changed the face of ROTC by incorporating new physical training elements beyond the traditional 5:50 a.m. sit ups, pushups and laps. It’s a more holistic approach to health that includes nutrition, stretching and recovery, spin class and yoga.
“It’s beneficial on multiple levels, especially for students who are experiencing stress,” Murphy said. “It’s athletic yoga – not just sitting in the lotus pose and saying ‘om.’ It works on flexibility, strength, and gets you relaxed and balanced.”
Provost Tom DiLorenzo said he’s proud of Murphy’s tireless work to enhance the culture of ROTC, as well as others at UND who are stepping to help. He notes that ROTC has partnered with UND Athletics to get students swimming in the Hyslop pool and running laps in the High Performance Center for an occasional change of pace and venue.
“Working together for all of our students is what One UND is all about,” DiLorenzo said.
An additional renewed partnership with the North Dakota National Guard has allowed cadets to use a Humvee rollover trainer and rifle range at Camp Grafton Training Center.
“Our core mission is to develop leaders of character, and that includes building healthy, vibrant, and resilient individuals capable of being leaders of action,” Murphy said.
Gannucci believes that, beyond more pop and sizzle in ROTC offerings, more women may be stepping into uniform because of a revived connection with the UND College of Nursing.
“There are a million reasons I joined ROTC, but one was my nursing career,” she said. “I didn’t want to just passively sit in a hospital – I wanted to move around and see more, and the military would provide that opportunity.”
Murphy says UND ROTC is working toward an application to become a Cadet Command Nursing Center of Excellence, which allows more scholarship potential for ROTC’s nursing students.
“After their junior year, we send our nurses to an Army hospital to shadow an active duty Army nurse,” Murphy said. “The nursing school provides great practicums, but the fact that you’re one-on-one with a preceptor for four weeks in an Army facility, seeing soldiers in trauma – it’s an incredible experience.”
Dean-Hendricks was just awarded a three-year Army ROTC Nursing Scholarship and hopes to one day become an active duty nurse. She said her ROTC cadre and nursing professors consistently work together to be flexible and support her goals within each program.
She also has a network of other female cadets to lean on.
“I think it adds more of a sense of community to the entire group,” she noted of the co-ed mix. “For the girls, there are more girls. For the guys, they have more female presence and unity.”
“We definitely push each other and have each other’s backs in everything,” Gannucci added. “There are many girls ahead of me in ROTC. Not only did they encourage me and the others to do everything the boys were doing – the males did it as well, including the commanders.”
Goal of growth
Murphy serves on the implementation team of UND’s Strategic Plan Goal Six (meeting the educational needs of the military). Goal project manager Sherry Lawdermilt recognizes that his status as a UND ROTC graduate brings an essential insight to their committee, and pushes him to make the program the best it can be.
“Lt. Col. Murphy’s passion for his job and concern for his cadets comes through in every conversation,” Lawdermilt said.
“He’s the happiest and most welcoming guy I’ve ever met,” Dean-Hendricks said. “He’s there for his cadets.”
As Murphy finds new ways to increase enrollment and draw attention to ROTC’s capacity to build strong soldiers and scholars, he gives thanks to the faculty, administration, and especially the students, who have been champions and advocates.
“It’s been amazing to me how, with the help of so many, we have transformed ourselves from where we were to where we’ve gone,” he said. “It’s been incredible to be a part of it.”