Here in Colorado I live with a local host family that my
organization set me up with to save on rent, and to give me a better foundation
for living here in the Springs. They are great. My host-mom works as the tax
specialist at Compassion (where I work), and my host-dad opens customer service
call centers for tech companies around the world. They have 3 kids, all guys,
all of whom are swimmers and tons of fun to hang out with. In addition to me,
they also take care of a cadet from the US Air Force Academy here in town. My
friend, the cadet is entering into his sophomore year at the Academy, and as
such is required to participate in the summer training programs: soaring
(flying planes that don’t use engines), global engagement (which is a fun
euphemism for combat training), and lastly survival training.

I’m not one to boast in our Armed Forces, glorify war (or
soldiers), or encourage the colonial mindset (though I do wholly agree that war
is necessary), but I will admit that I believe that the Air Force Academy may
be one of the most comprehensive and best systems of higher education that I
have been able to see into. If you’re into liberal arts, I’d may still
recommend just about anywhere else, but only because those programs aren’t
offered at USAFA. However, there are two things I’d like to explore that the
Academy does better than anywhere else I’ve seen: strengthening character, and
attracting valuable investments (the cadets).

First, students at USAFA are beat into shape and strength
from the day they arrive. Cadets are verbally and physically abused to the
point that would make summer 2-a-days for football camp look like a joke. Their
entire freshman year they are pushed around by upperclassmen, forced to study,
clean their rooms, participate in drills, all in addition to the rigorous
physical conditioning that they undergo in order to be prepared for their
careers as men and women in uniform. A number of kids drop out, but the ones
who stick around become pretty stable and capable young men and women. They are
able to be left in the woods for weeks on end without food or shelter, and
learn to survive hunger, cold or attack without complaining.

On the other side though, it is important to take note of
the Air Force’s brilliant design to recruit the Nation’s best and brightest for
their service. As seniors in high school, these kids commit to 4 years at the
Academy, and a minimum of 6 years of armed service in the Air Force. How do
they do it? Great teachers, beautiful campus? Sure, they have those, but I’m
willing to bet that in our slow economy, much of the students’ interest has
less to do with the academic program than it does with the fact that Cadets are
paid to go to school. Imagine that. Students are not only told that they are
the future leaders, but an organization will actually commit to them, train
them, and reward them for their service. In turn, the Air Force wins over young
men and women whose service is guaranteed by contract for a minimum of 6 years
after they graduate (and often well beyond that). From an HR standpoint, that’s
a pretty good investment, especially since the training is so particular. For
roughly $150,000 (note; this is an estimate) of training, they gain 6 years of
highly technical service by some of the most capable kids around. That’s pretty
smart. What I wonder, is whether a company such as GE would be able to do the
same. Imagine GE (or another Fortune 100 company) funding full ride, non
need-based scholarships for engineering students at a tailored Penn State
4-year program including summer commitments (internships) and a stipend for the
student’s living expenses. I think that a lot of people would jump at the
opportunity. And I know that because I have a friend who just accepted a
similar offer from the Department of Defense to finish school for free, earn
$50,000 and be guaranteed a job when he graduates. I think that this is a
win-win engagement for the student (who no longer would be burdened with debt),
and the company (who gets to now pick from the cream of the crop).

A win-win of course, unless you examine the nature of
student debt, and whether there really is freedom in committed service, even if
they will pay for your school.

Ultimately though, I struggle to commend the Air Force
Academy as a truly holistic agent of personal and professional development for
one reason. It, and any institution that will choose to follow a similar system
of recruiting, will inevitably hinder an individual’s freedom to question their
values, and follow a pattern of life that is anything other than what that
system requires. I will suggest first that our world is terribly screwed up,
and second that any change to the status quo will only come from individuals
who choose to deviate from societal norms. From a business standpoint, I
believe that it is highly profitable (and highly competitive) to find a similar
system of recruiting to what the DOD is beginning to do, but from a social
standpoint, I do hope that there are individuals out there strong enough to
resist the allure of wealth and security, and that will strive to be agents of change
in a world where stability is valued more than social innovation.


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