Long, Unconventional Road to Graduation for St. John’s ROTC Class of 2022

May 10, 2022

Forced into near isolation by the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduating members of St. John’s University’s Red Storm Battalion Army ROTC program honed their tactical skills by playing video games.

That’s right: video games.

“We couldn’t connect in person, so we did drill and calisthenics on Zoom, and then we used video games to practice tactics,” recalled senior Faith Perez from Woodbridge, VA. “We just focused on keeping the program together.”  

Life has been anything but routine for the 20 ROTC students who will graduate from St. John’s this month. Their training interrupted by the pandemic, the cadets employed unconventional methods to complete their obligations.

Pivoting to virtual platforms in March 2020, the St. John’s cadets managed to remain unified while in near isolation. Working around their regular classes, Faith, 22, led groups in ROTC essentials.

Others, including Akila Bislao and John Rudy Fronc, conjured up outside-the-box solutions for more sophisticated requirements. They utilized Roblox, a video game popular with preteens, and Fortnite, popular with those a few years older, to create a virtual soldier experience and enhance potential battlefield skills.

“I heard that the US Army was among the fastest organizations to adapt to the online situation,” Akila, 22, from Washington, DC, said. “You saw that here. Despite COVID, I had a fulfilling experience.”

ROTC, or Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, is a course of study and training in military science. Upon completion of an undergraduate degree and the ROTC program, cadets enter the US Army or National Guard at the rank of second lieutenant.

Cadets are not required to commit to the Army or Guard until their junior years. But once they commit, cadets serve a minimum of three years full time or eight years part time. Cadets can commit to longer stays.

Until March 2020, the St. John’s ROTC program was not unlike those at many of the nation’s universities. Students took academic classes in military science that counted as electives toward their university degrees, as well as lab periods, where they learned land navigation, patrolling, leadership, law, and other military skills.  

Cadets were also required to attend a summer session after their junior or senior years at Fort Knox, KY, where they focused on leadership training, airborne skills, and more. The Class of 2022 was the first to return to Fort Knox since the pandemic.

“Their resiliency and determination have helped them become who they are today,” says Maj. Ralph E. Scott, Assistant Professor of Military Science, St. John’s ROTC program. “They really didn’t want their 2022 unit to fall apart.”

Traditionally, cadets at St. John’s have done most of their field work as a group. When the pandemic struck, things quickly turned upside down for the Class of 2022.

“We all had to come together,” recalled Nina Ferrer. “We knew if we wanted the program to continue, we had to put it online. It shows a lot about us; I am super proud of the commitment we showed to not let it fall completely apart.”

Cadets come from a variety of backgrounds. Faith comes from a military family whose mother was initially skeptical of her joining ROTC. Faith will serve eight years while pursuing a career as a paralegal and ultimately a lawyer.

Akila, who also comes from a military family, plans to attend medical school when his six-year commitment is complete. John Rudy, among the oldest in the graduating class at 23 and a reluctant enlistee initially, will serve eight years full time before pursuing a career in homeland security.

“Coming to St. John’s, I was on the fence about ROTC,” John Rudy said. “But I had a roommate in my sophomore year who was in the program. Once I joined, I realized it was the right choice for me.”

Nina, 20, a Woodland Park, NJ, native, has made an eight-year, part-time commitment that she will complete while pursuing a career with the investment bank UBS. She will serve the Army as a weapon systems distributor.

Nina has always been drawn to service-related fields and is eager to begin her dual careers. “Only a small percentage of the students at St. John’s get to enjoy the glory of the National Guard,” Nina explained. “Wearing a uniform is something that has always mattered to me.”