Whether jumping out of airplanes, immersing themselves in language training and cultural experiences, lending their skills on Capitol Hill, or manning the controls of an aircraft carrier, numerous cadets in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership redefined the meaning of summer as college students.
The Cultural Understanding and Language Program, or CULP, selected three VWIL cadets — Nhi Nguyen, Tatiana Western, and Jazmyne Williamson — for its highly competitive program, sending the students to three different countries for three weeks to promote multilingualism and cultural understanding in the officer corps.
“It was an amazing experience to me … it really opened my eyes to the diversity of the world,” said Williamson, who spent her CULP training in Bacau, Romania, with that country’s army airborne battalion. Her mission: to help the Romanian troops understand and speak conversational English. Williamson’s team traveled around the eastern European country, giving her the opportunity to learn military tactics and interact with Romanians personally.
“Having the privilege to just talk to them was important because many people have knowledge of the United States only from what they see on television or movies, and I got the chance to break negative stereotypes that they once had,” Williamson said. “This experience taught me how to understand cultural differences and how difficult it is to teach someone if you do not open your mind to new techniques and ideas.”
Tatiana Western traveled to Lithuania on a military mission, learning Lithuanian tactics and weapons systems and spending time in nearby Latvia to participate in a NATO operation. “As a person and as a leader, I felt that I gained the confidence it takes to push myself hard,” she said.
Some cadets spent their summers developing their leadership skills through study abroad and internships. Aly Beall spent the summer at Oxford University, Jordan Berg interned at a local police department, and Emily Carroll worked on Capitol Hill.
Answering constituent phone calls, reading mail, sorting press releases, and researching bills allowed Carroll, a political science major, to get a taste of being a Washington insider as she interned with Rep. Howard Coble from her home state of North Carolina.
“I’ve been able to see what has to be done to help Mr. Coble lead his district and try to make the people he represents happy,” Carroll said. “Also, being [in Washington] made me want to figure out how to get back to DC and to the House of Representatives as soon as possible while still doing something with the military.”
Meanwhile, Aly Beall spent weeks studying English literature and history at Oxford University, enjoying the challenge of classroom discussions and immersing herself in the works of William Shakespeare and the era that saw the rule of Henry VIII to Charles I. Most important, Beall said, was soaking in the culture and environment of an English university and discovering hidden qualities within herself.
“This summer helped shape my ideas of leadership as I came to realize that the world is a lot bigger than me, and I saw how different people can be,” Beall said. “I realized that I have to know who I am and where I stand on certain issues to be someone that people want to follow. And I learned the importance of listening to the ideas of others.”
Five VWIL midshipmen — Emily Sikorski, Kacie Dodd, Christina Leyton, Amanda Fadden, and Amanda Evans — spent their summer at sea while one midshipman, Mariah Efurd, and Marine Corps cadet Brenda Echak trained in San Diego. In addition, VWIL cadet Megan Barron earned a Navy ROTC scholarship.
Amanda Fadden’s adventure took her on a cruise on the USS Ashland from Little Creek, Virginia, to San Diego via the Panama Canal. Along the way, Fadden fired a .50-caliber machine gun, practiced man-overboard drills and mass-casualty training, drove the ship, and gave command to the helmsman.
“I learned a lot about myself, and it changed a lot of my perspectives,” Fadden said.
Leyton’s experience took her to the Persian Gulf on the USS Nimitz, where she had the opportunity to learn about flight operations, including how to activate the aircraft launcher.
“My favorite part of the cruise was when I was able to take a ride on the helicopter [that] took me around the Nimitz as well as to see the cruiser that drove near the Nimitz,” Leyton said. “The pilots were very informative and wanted to teach me everything they could. They even taught me how to properly conduct a search-and-rescue mission. At one point they hoisted me down from the helicopter and I was able to hang about three feet above the water.”
Also spending their summer on the other side of the world were cadets Anabel Montano and Alessandra Gonzalez-Rivera, who traveled to South Korea for Cadet Troop Leader Training.
Once abroad, Gonzalez-Rivera spent time with the 568th Medical Ground Ambulance Company, where she served as a platoon leader and executive officer, gaining experience — such as time management — that extended beyond basic Army drills.
“The major thing that I gained from both experiences is the importance of getting to know the people you work with,” Gonzalez-Rivera said. “Being able to learn how the people I worked with think and what they care about puts me on a personal level with them, which builds trust and helps within any work environment.”
Before traveling to South Korea, Montano and Gonzalez-Rivera also trained at Fort Lewis in Washington for Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC), learning the basics of Army officer training. Also completing the LDAC experience this summer were Elizabeth Limerick and Jessie Campbell, who overcame her nerves as she traveled out west for her training duties.
“[Those nerves were] quickly erased when I got settled in with my platoon and got to know a little about everyone and where they were from,” Campbell said. “With our newly forged bonds we embarked on a month-long adventure that changed my life. I learned — even when faced with daunting obstacle courses or having the opportunity to send a live bullet downrange — I was braver than I thought I could be.”
After three weeks of her own difficult training, Kimberly Denny completed U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and earned her parachutist wings. Airborne School included practicing landing techniques, jumping from a tower, and eventually completing five jumps from aircraft.
“Airborne school was an amazing experience,” Denny said. “My first jump was the craziest, funniest feeling ever. I feel extremely accomplished from completing the course and am proud to call myself a paratrooper.”
Cover photo: Cadet Nguyen teaching elementary school children in Korea. See many more images of cadet summer experiences on the VWIL Facebook page.