In August 2009 Adnan Barqawi will walk to the front of a classroom somewhere in the impoverished Mississippi Delta. He will urge a class of elementary school students to excel, to surprise all those people who have low expectations of them.
Working in a poor school through the Teach for America program will be a new role for the recent Pamplin College of Business graduate, who majored in management, not education. But it will not be a totally unfamiliar situation for Barqawi.
As a junior in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Barqawi was made a first sergeant in a company that, he said, was not known for excellence. He worked hard to motivate his company to do better, succeeded, and as a senior in the fall of 2008 was named regimental commander, the highest student position within the corps and in charge of 700 of his peers.
Barqawi, a Palestinian who was born and raised in Kuwait, became a citizen of the United States in April 2009. Later that month he was named Virginia Tech Undergraduate Student Leader of the Year. It was the sixth year in a row that a cadet won the award. The streak is a point of pride for the corps, even though its members could be said to have an unfair advantage.
“Not many students on this campus have the opportunity to lead 700, or 225, or even 60 fellow students on a 24-7 basis,” explained corps Commandant Jerry Allen, a retired major general from the U.S. Air Force.
Only one cadet gets to serve as regimental commander each semester. But all upper-class cadets are expected to serve in at least two leadership positions during their time at Virginia Tech. Many do more than that. And, a majority of cadets supplement what they learn in practice by earning a minor in leadership studies available to them through the Maj. Gen. W. Thomas Rice Center for Leader Development.
Why would an incoming student, with the prospect of freedom from parents, choose to embrace a military lifestyle that, for first-year cadets includes mandatory study hall and numerous other challenges, including two 13-mile marches?
For many cadets it is an important step toward a military career. Participants in the university’s ROTC programs are required to be in the corps of cadets as well. About 80 percent of cadets are in an ROTC program. But there are also many corps-only members, like Barqawi, who see an opportunity to learn how to lead, as well as a personal challenge that will bring out their best.
“Being in the corps is a challenge, and I wanted the challenge,” said Josh Alexander of Amissville, Va., a rising junior who is also majoring in management. Alexander said he hopes to work in the industry for about a decade then teach business in high school.
Alexander started at the university as an academic sophomore, but within the corps he was still considered a first-year student last school year, and was subject to all the extra oversight that entailed.
Like all first-year cadets, he participated in the Caldwell March, a two-phase event in which cadets roughly follow the 26-mile route Addison Caldwell walked from his home in 1872. Caldwell became the first student to enroll at what was then called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, known today as Virginia Tech.
The first portion of the Caldwell March takes place about six weeks after first-year cadets arrive and the second half comes not long before the end of the spring semester.
The second phase of the march ends with a “turning” ceremony outside Lane Hall, after which first-year cadets can address upper-class cadets on a first-name basis. At that point the first-year cadets, who had been viewed as followers throughout their initial year, are ready for their first leadership experience, which they will have in the fall when a new class of cadets arrives.
“The final Caldwell March is symbolic,” said rising sophomore Julie Deisher. “You’re done with your freshman year and this is what you’ve become. ... This is everything you’ve worked for.”
Deisher, a Gainesville, Va., native and an English major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said she plans to attend law school. She said she wants to become a lawyer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
Nicholas Quenga also completed the Caldwell March in 2009. He is a native of Warner Robins, Ga., majoring in electrical engineering in the College of Engineering, and said he plans to serve on attack submarines for the Navy.
But whatever he winds up doing, Quenga said, he will draw on his cadet experience as both preparation and motivation to be a leader.
“There’s kind of a responsibility to carry on the excellence,” Quenga said. “When I get out, I’m going to be in the Navy fleet, or working, and when I say ‘I’m a graduate of the corps of cadets,’ they’re going to expect more of me, whoever my employer is.”
Adnan Barqawi was the sixth consecutive undergraduate student leader of the year to be a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.
The streak began with Dan Richardson, who is now a captain in the U.S. Air Force and is training to become a C-17 aircraft commander.
“The corps was a proving ground,” said Richardson, who serves as executive officer of a squadron when he’s not flying C-17s. “It was a unique opportunity to observe, study, and practice leadership in an environment that demanded it 24-7.”
The Caldwell March tradition started in 2000. But many former cadets who never walked it still take part by sponsoring today's participants. Read more.
Being a cadet is one way to get leadership experience at Virginia Tech. But there are many others. The Division of Student Affairs helps students find out what opportunities are available.
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.