For many of her fellow cadets, the 40-foot rappel tower was just a routine part of a military obstacle course in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) Cadet Leadership Challenge. But for Cadet Orozco, who has an almost crippling fear of heights, it was much more.
The Lane Tech student had three plans concocted to get out of having to deal with the tower, including suddenly having a headache and hiding out in the infirmary. But in the end, Orozco conquered the tower and walked away with tears of happiness instead of fear.
“This moment is an emotional joy because I have had this fear forever, and now it’s gone forever,” she said.
Cadet Orozco’s story of courage represents the essence of the Cadet Leadership Challenge (JCLC), a summer training program for CPS’s JROTC students.
St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis., has been home to the JCLC since 2009, although the Challenge dates back more than 93 years to the beginning of JROTC at CPS. According to CPS Director of Military Instruction Kevin Kelley, the Academy resembles a “mini-West Point.”
The JCLC consists of two one-week cycles in June. This summer, each cycle comprised a little more than 250 students representing 44 CPS schools. A few students from suburban Chicago and Kenosha, Wis., schools also participated.
When the cadets arrive at the JCLC, they are separated into seven companies, which spend the week competing with each other in activities such as raft building, bridge crossing and other leadership development courses.
“It’s competitive in nature, but in a way that fosters camaraderie,” said Todd Connor, executive director of the CPS JROTC program. “They are meeting all these new students from different schools and getting to know one another and learning to trust one another.”
Some might be tempted to compare the JCLC with the rough-and-tumble boot camp sequences in many military movies, but Kelley said that comparison doesn’t do the Challenge justice.
“We deemphasize the idea of its being a boot camp and emphasize leadership development,” Kelley said. “I always ask the instructors, ‘If you’re about to make a decision, is it possible to let a cadet make it? If there is, let the cadet do it, whether it’s right or wrong, so that they can learn from it.’”
Connor said the JCLC is “More carrot, less stick,” emphasizing the praise and reward aspect of the program.
“People assume there’s a lot of discipline, but it’s a lot more about awards and recognition,” he said. “The kids who work hard get ribbons and medals … they’re rewarded for their efforts.”
JCLC is, however, still a military camp, meaning it’s not all fun and games. Cadets must wake up at 5 a.m. daily and participate in a regimen that involves wearing clean uniforms, marching, physical training and lights out at 9:30 p.m. Air Force Academy student Khedoni Tyler, who just completed his third JCLC and will be a senior this year, said the strict schedule helped correct a couple of his bad habits.
“It was tough, but I learned a lot about time management, and that will help me a lot in college,” he said.
Most JCLC cadets are freshmen going into their sophomore year. The upper classmen – dubbed “Black Hats” – are cadet leaders and commanders who completed the program in past years. The upper-class cadets take on specific leadership roles for both cycles of the program, including logistics officer and operations officer, among others.
Jocelyn Vega returned to the JCLC in June as a public affairs officer, responsible for compiling newsletters that detailed the daily events. The soon-to-be Air Force Academy senior said the JCLC – and participation in the JROTC in general – took her a long way from her quiet, reserved junior high school days.
“I never thought I could command a group of 300 cadets (as a wing commander at Air Force Academy), but I did,” she said. “Now I delegate and negotiate, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to prove myself.”
Tyler also said the same thing: the No. 1-ranked cadet during his Air Force Academy class during his freshman year said he generally kept to himself before entering high school. Time spent as a leader in the JCLC has changed that.
“My parents noticed and said, ‘Why are you talking like this? What did they do to you at the school?’” he laughed.
Kelley said that the JCLC can be a transformative experience for young people who have never even been outside of their neighborhoods, let alone hours away from home in a different state.
“Here you have some students who are spending the first night of their lives away from home, and they’re doing activities they never thought possible,” Kelley said. “They overcome fears and limits they put on themselves, so they feel a sense of accomplishment, and their peers are there motivating them the whole time.”
Kelley said a big part of that motivation comes from the “L” in JCLC – leadership. Each company has a commander and first sergeant, as well as platoon leader and squad leader roles; every company member rotates into each role during their time in the Challenge.
“The point to the program is that everyone has leadership responsibilities,” Connor said. “It cultivates commitment to the program.”
Vega said she has witnessed first-hand the transformation of younger cadets who get their first taste of leadership through the JCLC.
“A lot start the program unorganized, but then they are given opportunities that change their lives,” she said. “It’s an exciting thing to watch.”
About CPS JROTC
The CPS JROTC is the largest in the country in number of students –more than 10,300—and programs offered. CPS Military Schools and JROTC is unique in that there are currently six Military Academies, four JROTC Academies-within-a-school, 34 traditional JROTC programs, and 20 Middle School Cadet Corps programs. The six military academies are the Air Force Academy, Carver Military Academy, Chicago Military Academy, Phoenix Military Academy, Marine Math and Science Military Academy and Rickover Naval Academy.
CPS Military Schools and JROTC is considered the national leader in the integration of JROTC in urban education. JROTC complements the curricula and overall educational programs of high schools, offering students a unique opportunity for personal growth.
As a program, JROTC is comprehensive. With an emphasis on American citizenship and history, courses also help students develop values and skills indispensable to success in school and beyond. JROTC instructors teach as much by example as by syllabus. They serve as role models for students and as mentors who provide strong incentives to stay in school and graduate. Military uniforms are worn once a week according to the program or during special events.
As stated by the program’s Executive Director of Service Leadership Programs, Todd Connor, and the Director of Military Instruction, Kevin Kelley:
“Our focus is to develop our students to their fullest potential for post-secondary education and prepare them to be better citizens by utilizing various components of the military model. We accomplish this by delivering meaningful instruction by a professional staff of military instructors and a comprehensive, technology driven curriculum. It is also our intent to socially and personally develop our students through numerous competitive and non-competitive events such as summer camp, leadership camp, sports challenge, orienteering, local and national drill competitions, field trips, and more. This is an exciting program that offers students the opportunity to develop their academic and social skills while making a difference in their school, community, and Chicago.”
To learn more, visit http://www.chicagojrotc.com, where you can view videos of JROTC students in action at http://chicagojrotc.com/apps/video/index.jsp.