Committed to Serve

Penn State’s ROTC program—one of the largest and oldest in the United States—brings students and instructors together under a shared purpose and desire to serve.

Captain Duane Blank, Marine Officer instructor and assistant professor of Naval Science for the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) unit, has a strict routine he follows every day. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to do chores around the house, arriving on campus by 6:00 a.m. to work out. From 7:00 until 8:00 a.m., he holds open office hours for students. From there, he’s either teaching, meeting with ROTC recruits, coordinating logistics for the many athletic events the ROTC is involved in, scheduling conferences, or lining up outreach opportunities in the community.

In the evening, he attends classes for his graduate degree in employment and labor relations until 7:00 p.m. After dinner with his wife and kids, he studies until 2:00 a.m., and is up at 4:30 a.m. to do it all over again.

Many don’t operate well on two hours of sleep, but for Blank, it’s all about perspective, saying, “At least I can go home to my wife and kids, and I’m not in a hole getting shot at.”

Blank enlisted in the Marine Corps in May of 1999. He has served several deployments including 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of Operation Enduring Freedom aboard the USS Wasp and Operation Iraqi Freedom I, where he led a combined armed attack team in security operations. He went on to complete Officer Candidate School and received his undergraduate degree in kinesiology with honors from Louisiana State University. He achieved the rank of Gunnery Sergeant prior to commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. He went on to serve in the Global War on Terrorism in 2012.

A Naval ROTC Officer carrying weighted ammo boxes with midshipman Nicole Song during a workout

Captain Duane Blank Trains with Midshipman Nicole Song

Marine Officer instructor and assistant professor of Naval Science, Captain Duane Blank (right), served several deployments with the United States Marines and completed his bachelor's degree before coming to Penn State to join the staff of the Naval ROTC. He is currently working toward his master's degree in employment and labor relations in the College of Liberal Arts. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

"The Marine Corps gave me perspective." — Captain Duane Blank, Marine Officer Instructor and Assistant Professor of Naval Science

“The Marine Corps gave me perspective,” says Blank. “I got out and saw the world. After 9/11, I was part of the infantry Marines, was a drill instructor, and was chosen to become an officer. The military paid for my bachelor’s degree.”

Although Blank’s experience varies from the ROTC students he sees come through his office, the value of the program remains the same. For students wishing to pursue a college degree with specialized training, ROTC is an attractive option.

In exchange for active duty services in their chosen branch, students who qualify receive scholarships to cover the cost of their education. Beyond funding, the specialized training these students receive not only prepares them to be members of the U.S. Armed Forces, but can be applied to life beyond the military. Through leadership and professional development, physical training, and team-driven experiences, ROTC opens doors and provides unique opportunities and perspective to students and future officers.

Nationally Recognized

At Penn State, the national reputation of its ROTC program served as the basis for some current students’ college decision-making.

Sophomore Anthony DelPalazzo, originally from Florida, was involved in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) in high school and has a brother who enlisted in the Navy. That background, combined with an interest to pursue nuclear engineering in college, made Naval ROTC training seem like a good fit.

“When it came to choosing schools, I had a lot of options picked out,” says DelPalazzo. “But, I picked Penn State namely because of the ROTC program. It’s arguably the best in the country.”

Senior John Stein of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, joined Penn State’s Air Force ROTC and is majoring in materials science and engineering, with a polymer science option. Stein personally felt a strong calling to serve while in high school and remembers growing up near an airfield watching the Blue Angels fly.

“Penn State is known for its ROTC programs. I'm drawn to a greater purpose and doing something that's not just about me.” — Air Force ROTC Cadet John Stein

“Penn State is known for its ROTC programs,” says Stein. “I’m drawn to a greater purpose and doing something that’s not just about me. It’s about being a leader, taking care of other people, and the sense of team and working together for the greater good and cause.”

Penn State’s Naval ROTC program is one of the largest programs in the U.S. with about 200 students participating. Similarly sized is Penn State’s Air Force ROTC, known as Detachment 720, which is the largest Air Force ROTC program among the 37 Northeast Region detachments. The branch has cadets at both the University Park and Altoona campuses and is the eighth-largest Air Force ROTC program in the nation and the second-largest non-senior military college program.

“When it came to choosing schools, I had a lot of options picked out. But, I picked Penn State namely because of the ROTC program. It’s arguably the best in the country.” — Navy ROTC Midshipman Anthony DelPalazzo

Penn State’s Army ROTC unit, known as the Nittany Lion Battalion, is the largest pure Army ROTC program in the country and consists of four companies located at Penn State’s University Park and Altoona campuses.

The branch was recently selected as a General Douglas MacArthur Award winner for 2017-18, outperforming 41 other programs in the Northeast for the honor. The award is presented annually to the top Army ROTC program in each of the U.S. Army Cadet Command’s eight brigades, with the winning units selected from among the 275 Army ROTC programs nationwide. Penn State Behrend’s “Pride of PA” battalion previously won a General Douglas MacArthur Award in 2013.

MacArthur Award presentation

MacArthur Award-ROTC-32718-Banner

Penn State President Eric Barron, center, presented the 2017 MacArthur Award to Penn State’s Army ROTC program during ceremonies held March 27 at Schwab Auditorium. Pictured with President Barron, left to right, are Master Sgt. Branden Syverson, Col. Richard Garey, Cadet Michael Fisher, and Cadet Eric Behringer.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

In Search of Structure 

Andrew Hoag of State College, did not have a personal tie to the military prior to joining the Army ROTC program. The junior, who is majoring in global international studies with a global conflict specification, says he was drawn to the service commitment and the hard work required.

“I like discipline and rules in my life,” says Hoag. “I started as an option. I thought I would do it for a semester and see how I like it.”

Hoag got drawn in. He enlisted in Army National Guard and completed infantry basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Benning in Georgia last summer.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” says Hoag. “It provided a lot of stability and motivation and purpose to college life.”

As far as time commitment and classes go, ROTC students give about five hours weekly, which includes classes, physical training, and leadership laboratory, which consists of discussion on current events in the military, drills, customs and courtesies, and training in a field environment. Physical requirements vary among the three branches as do academics—certain branches are highly technical and focus more on science-based learning and engineering.

Senior biology major and math minor Nicole Song of Chicago, Illinois spent nearly a decade of her life as a competitive figure skater and ballet dancer. When she told her mom she wanted to join the Marine Corps, it came as a bit of a surprise. But, for Song, the military appealed to her for many of the same reasons that figure skating did.

“There are lots of hours, which requires discipline,” says Song. “My personality type is to reach for a goal, and the military gave me that direction more so than the traditional college route.”

Midshipman Nicole Song practices body lifts with Captain Duane Blank as part of physical training for The United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School (OCS)

Preparing for Officer Candidates School

Midshipman and senior biology major Nicole Song practices body lifts with Captain Duane Blank as part of physical training for The United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School (OCS), which she will attempt at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia this summer. 

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“My personality type is to reach for a goal, and the military gave me that direction more so than the traditional college route.” — Navy ROTC Midshipman Nicole Song

The additional time commitment is balanced with academics, involvement in organizations, and student life in general, but many Penn State ROTC students agree that the ability to manage it all goes back to that desire to serve.

“I’ve been navigating my way here at school, finding what I’m good at and what I love,” says Gabriela Marsh of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “However, this call to service is something I feel even more devoted to now because this [ROTC] is my family, and even though I change, it’s still my home.”

From the Battlefield to the Classroom

Through their service, some even bring their experience back to the classroom. For Blank, his time as an active duty Marine has helped to shape his academic experience.

“I came from nothing and now I'm getting a master’s degree from Penn State,” says Blank. “I've served with some of the best people this country has to offer. All different walks of life. And you see what our country is all about. That's why you do it. More than anything else, it's the people.”

According to Elaine Farndale, who teaches one of Blank’s graduate courses in Research Methods in Human Resources and Employment Relations, he brought a completely different perspective to the course, and his line of questions during classroom discussion brought up new ways to think about organizations.

“One of the main things he brought was a maturity and a willingness to ask questions,” says Farndale. “It was such a different environment for him, but he would challenge the environment by asking questions.”

Farndale points to his experience—a very different experience—as being a differentiator.

“His is a very tactical approach,” says Farndale, “where he’s had this experience, he’s led others, and knows what challenges he’s likely to come across in the workplace. So, the focus is more on, ‘how do I deal with those challenges instead of just getting an A?’”

Having a tactical approach is important when the context in which you are applying your skills involves the lives of others. For Captain Blank, he returns to a line from the book MCDP1 Warfighting for the Marine Corps that he teaches his midshipmen: “A leader must have a great sense of their responsibility of their office, because their assets they expend in war is human lives.”

“When you ask what makes them want to come through [ROTC], they truly see a higher purpose,” says Blank. “They know that by the end of this, it's not a four-year degree they're going for; I'm putting them in charge of no less than 32 people’s lives, and they have to make decisions. Their training is based on ethical decision-making and how to act under stressful situations. It’s all about how you apply that, which goes beyond circling bubbles or answering an essay question.”