I was recently e-mailed by a high school senior with the unenviable task of deciding between attending the Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel. He was specifically concerned with which school would better prepare him for Marine OCS as he had a Marine Corps ROTC Scholarship. Here is my reply:
“Well, asking what life at VMI is like is a rather broad subject. As for choosing between the Institute and El Cid, what do you want to major in and where do you want to go to school? Charleston is a beautiful city and has a bustling culture and nightlife while Lexington is a sleepy little rural town without a whole lot going on. Both schools aren’t easy and both schools will test you mentally, physically, and spiritually. The NROTC curriculum isn’t all that different at either school and succeeding at OCS is more dependent upon your attitude and strength of will. But that probably isn’t the answer you were looking for and only makes the decision more difficult, so here’s my rather biased view.
VMI is tough. There is no way around it, the system is set up to intentionally break you down to your lowest level and then keep piling on the pressure and duties until you either graduate or quit. The Ratline is hard, but being an upperclassman is harder. Expect to study hard, eat terrible food, have no time to yourself and zero privacy, and to sleep very little. Expect to spend at least some of your free time marching in circles with a rifle for hours on end because you screwed-up and were punished for it. Expect to be miserable. Expect to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world as far as conduct and personal honor are concerned. Know that your personal honor and integrity are paramount. Go in with the full knowledge that your years at the Mother I will be the best and worst years of your life. Know that you will hate the place while there and while you’re home will wish you were back. Know that your Brother Rats are the best friends you will ever have and in order to survive, you will have to rely on them and they will have to rely on you. Know that you will struggle academically and will probably have lower grades at the Institute than you ever did in high school. Expect to fail at least once but that the lessons learned from that failure will help you later on. Know that the Alumni network is one of the closest knit in the world and they are EVERYWHERE. Know that a degree from VMI will allow you to write your own ticket wherever you want to go in life. Know that the Ring will open doors for you simply because you are an Institute Man, and that you need to get the full-size ring. And finally know that as much as they may not seem like it, every single member of the Commandant’s Staff, faculty, and administration wants you to succeed.
I was in the same situation as you my senior year in high school. If I had known all that and been presented the choice between the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute, I would still choose to leave home for the Shenandoah Valley. So the real question is, knowing all of the above, will you still take the challenge?”