By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – More than 500 students participated in Friday’s spring commencement at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Three of them received standing ovations from the capacity crowd inside the Health and Sports Center.
Cannon Marchand, Jeysel Olmos and Armando Chavez celebrated a pair of achievements on graduation day. Shortly after receiving their degrees, the ROTC cadets were commissioned as second lieutenants in the Nebraska Army National Guard, where they’ll spend the next eight years serving their state and country.
Brig. Gen. Kevin Lyons, a UNK graduate and assistant adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard, was on hand to salute the new officers during a ceremony attended by their friends and family in the Nebraskan Student Union Antelope Room.
“I want to thank the remarkable men and women we honor today for embracing the amazing responsibility of leadership, academics and commitment, and accepting the noblest mission I believe a young person can pursue, which is to provide service and protect the security of the American people and, indeed, much of the rest of the world,” said Lyons, who holds three degrees from UNK and is employed by the Nebraska Department of Education as director of school finance.
The Army ROTC – Reserve Officers’ Training Corps – is a leadership program offered at more than 1,100 colleges and universities that produces about 60% of the U.S. Army’s second lieutenants each year. Students can participate for two years without any obligation to join the Army, and those who complete the four-year program are commissioned as officers in either the active-duty Army, National Guard or Army Reserve.
Marchand, a Kearney native who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history and minor in military science, said the leadership, management and communication skills ROTC cadets gain through the program are valuable in all facets of life.
“I don’t think you can get any better leadership training at the college level,” Marchand said. “You’re put in positions where you’re leading your peers, and those are the hardest people to lead. You’re also learning the values, morals and ethics that come with military service.
“Those are things you can apply anywhere in life, no matter where you end up.”
The 21-year-old will serve as a transportation lieutenant with the 195th Forward Support Company, an airborne-qualified special operations unit based in Omaha. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in history through the University of Nebraska at Omaha with hopes of teaching military history at the collegiate level.
Olmos, of Lexington, was introduced to military service through a Junior ROTC program while completing her final year of high school in Indianapolis.
“What kept calling me back, even after I graduated from high school, was the people,” she said. “The people are awesome. There’s a camaraderie that I’ve never felt anywhere else. We’re all working toward the same thing, toward one purpose, and it’s a really noble cause.”
The 25-year-old enlisted in the National Guard as a combat medic specialist and completed the ROTC program while earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in military science. Olmos, who plans to enroll in nursing school, is a medical service lieutenant with the 110th Multifunctional Medical Battalion in Lincoln.
ROTC allows students to “hit the ground running” after graduation, she said, regardless of what their future path is.
“The personal and professional development the cadets go through from their freshman year through their senior year is incredible,” Olmos said. “You literally watch people grow up in the program.”
In addition to the leadership training, ROTC offers merit-based scholarships that pay up to the full cost of a cadet’s college tuition. UNK’s program, part of the Big Red Battalion based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, includes a learning community where cadets can experience college life together.
The Army ROTC, as it exists today, began more than 100 years ago with President Woodrow Wilson signing the National Defense Act of 1916. It’s the largest officer-producing organization for the U.S. military, commissioning more than 600,000 men and women.
More than 40% of the current active-duty Army general officers were commissioned through ROTC, with other officers coming from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Army Officer Candidate School.
“It is a competition for positions in the United States Army, and we want our best talent in those positions,” Lyons said.
Chavez, of Gering, graduated from UNK with a Bachelor of Arts in Education with a special education endorsement. The 27-year-old will serve as a chemical lieutenant with the Lincoln-based 67th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.
James Burklund, who earned a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness from UNK in 2016 and is currently pursuing a master’s in clinical mental health counseling, was also commissioned Friday.
The 26-year-old Davey native has served in the National Guard since 2011 and currently works as a finance manager with Midway Auto Dealerships in Kearney.
Burklund, a transportation lieutenant with the 1075th Transportation Company, 2nd Detachment, in McCook, delivered a lasting message to his fellow officers during the ceremony.
“Today is not the end, but the beginning,” he said. “Now that we have achieved our goal, it is time to set new goals, continually pushing ourselves to become better for not only ourselves, but also our fellow soldiers.”
“Tomorrow many of us will stand in front of our new platoons for the first time, and we must display true leadership.”