On Cadet Life and Lessons Learned

A personal reflection on a frustratingly enjoyable Corps experience

Henry Mureithi was in I-1 during his time in the Corps of Cadets.   Provided.

Henry Mureithi was in I-1 during his time in the Corps of Cadets. Provided.

By Henry Mureithi @HenryMureithi5

The essence of character is nuance. Moreover, the path to that nuance often paves its way through the phoenix-like cycle of failure and advancement. No experience that I’ve had (or perhaps may ever have) better encapsulates this than my three and a half years in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets.

Whenever my friends, both at A&M and back home, inquire as to my reasons for joining the Corps, they usually accompany their questions with some befuddled facial expression, as if trying to cognitively compute: ‘Why? Why would anyone give up their first full experience of freedom to subject themselves to a Spartan-like regimented lifestyle?’ In all honesty, the answer that usually follows seems exceedingly shallow in the shadow of the solemnity of my experience in the Corps.

When I initially volunteered for the Corps while applying to A&M, I did it in an attempt to avoid my college experience descending into the worst sort of predictability. As a person who always aspires for meaning, simply going to college to get a degree just like a flood of other students seemed like a pointless waste of my time.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I would liken my attitude toward my years in the Corps to Nietzsche’s Übermensch — the character who, in response to hardship and struggle, embraces their reality with relish and gratitude. I am convinced that the only way to truly appreciate the Corps experience is to not only “embrace the suck,” but also to revel in it.

I am drawn to some of the words that one of my upperclassmen used to repeat when I was a fish. They used to say, “We will never push further than your potential.” Obviously, when you’re dripping in sweat on a hot, sunny Friday afternoon, after you’ve already lost your sense of time and the number of push-ups you’ve been subjected to — all this after a week of seemingly unending demands from your upperclassmen on top of your academic obligations — the aforementioned words may ring more than a little bit hollow. But then I made it past the first Friday, and then the next, and the next, and then 10 or so weeks later, the semester was over and I was about to embark on my journey into sophomorehood.

I am never one for clichés, but one can never be sure about the limits of one’s fortitude until one is subjected to a situation completely outside one’s comfort zone. Fish infamously complain about everything (upperclassmen, food, physical training, the weather, [insert other absurd complaint here]). However, as I pushed (both figuratively and literally), I grew. But like the Übermensch, I relished the whole god-damn time of it!

The flavor of demands may have changed year-to-year, but the challenge of the Corps was always constant.

Before you come away with the impression that the Corps is the equivalent of killing the puppies of one’s soul (it is, but that’s beside the point), you have to remember the Corps also places a premium on, to offer up another cliché, “making leaders.” There is something to be said about living, eating and working with the same group of people day after day — each with their own dispersed responsibilities. It does become a sort of family. A rigid, hierarchical and militaristic family, but a family nonetheless. That is why, though we often talk about leadership and being leaders, the Corps is uniquely positioned at the task of being a laboratory for leadership.

As I progressed as a cadet from pisshead onwards, I recall being struck by the extent to which I began to care for those assigned under me. It’s more than just acceding to the responsibility that’s been given to you. You actually become invested in the progress of your subordinates. I recall stretches of thought which I would spend just thinking about the best ways not only to assist them in their struggles — may they be physical, academic, emotional or otherwise — but also to help them improve, whatever their level of proficiency and become the best versions of themselves that they could be. It would be remiss if I said I wasn’t more than a tad proud when some of the same individuals that I mentored and guided transformed into exceptional cadets and young adults. We could argue about selection bias and the extent to which my role was determinative, but that hasn’t stopped me from taking a mental bow in self-approval.

To give another aphorism passed on to me that I have used perhaps one too many times, “You can give up on yourself, but I will never give up on you.”

There is also the value of control. There is no question that the Corps, given its military structure, is given far more latitude by the university in the conduct of its activities and the interactions of its members, to the dismay of Greek Life and other campus organizations. It is in light of this latitude that the oftentimes judicious application of this discretion — by barely legal adults I might add — seems even more impressive. There is something to be said of the of great personal understanding of having power that is rife for abuse, but choosing not to abuse it. You can never really know yourself until you have the power to indulge in one’s worst instincts but elect a different path. I know people who were confronted by this option and chose a less honorable course of action. I’ve always remarked that the Corps has an uncommon power to bring out the best and worst in people.

This is not to say that the Corps is some paragon of organizational perfection. Like almost all large and aged institutions, Corps life sometimes has a more frustrating side that is typically quite slow to embrace change. And yes, some of this is reflected in the views of some cadets. But in totality, it’s hard to argue that the experience is not a net return several times over for those who choose to embrace it.

I’ve been told that cadets don’t do regret, and I certainly have no second thoughts at the choice I made in committing myself to the Corps lifestyle.

Henry Mureithi is a computer science senior and assistant news editor for The Battalion.