Stranger in a Strange Land: From Pitzer to West Point

By Mac Crane

“Attention all cadets!” The wake-up call echoed down the halls of the barracks at 6:15 a.m. “Breakfast today will be pancakes, oatmeal, orange juice…” chanted the entire freshmen class, or plebes, as they are called at the United States Military Academy. After five hours of sleep, Pitzer senior Jon Rice groggily got dressed as West Point came to life.

Rice, Student Senate Chair at Pitzer, recently visited West Point for the three-day Student Conference on U.S. Affairs. It’s hard to imagine a more opposite school from the relaxed, liberal, Southern California atmosphere of Pitzer, but Rice learned a great deal from the experience.

“It’s an extremely structured environment,” he said. “Every aspect of your life is dictated.”

After leaving his stark dormitory, Rice joined the mass of uniformed students shuffling through the snow. Students are required to wear military fatigues at all times at West Point. They also must call their superiors “Sir” or “Mam,” another major difference from Pitzer’s loose code of decorum.

For breakfast, as with every meal, all 4,000 of West Point’s students ate together. The dining hall looked like it was straight out of Hogwarts with its chandeliers, frescoes, stained-glass windows, and giant wooden doors. The cadets filed into their assigned seats and the entire meal lasted about 15 minutes.

“There’s almost no selection of what the food is,” said Rice. “You’re pretty much presented what you’re eating and everyone kind of groans. It wasn’t particularly bad, but it wasn’t good.”

For the rest of the day, Rice attended the conference to discuss policy solutions with students from 120 universities. Aside from debating austerity, the theme of this year’s conference, Rice also gained some sense of the cadets’ perspectives.

“The ones I talked to, the Army made them less ideological and more practical.” For instance, he talked to cadets who agreed climate change was a problem, but viewed it in terms of resource scarcity rather than environmental responsibility. Rice also found some of his preconceived notions of the military challenged.

“There was actually a lot more dissenting opinion than I expected. Individual people were extremely thoughtful, not dogmatic.” Rice noticed that the cadets were not as critical of American exceptionalism as Pitzer students, but they also acknowledged the atrocities in our history. What’s more, there was a big conversation at the conference about how humanitarian efforts will be an important part of the military’s future.

At night most of the cadets turned to their schoolwork. Social life is also very structured on campus, with alcohol strictly prohibited for all students except seniors. At 11 p.m. the bugler played taps, and then the cadets were supposed to be in their rooms until morning. Most nights, Rice didn’t get to bed until 1 or 2 a.m. because the cadets were still up doing homework.

“I was in a perpetual state of exhaustion the entire time,” he said.

It’s certainly easy to focus on the many differences between West Point and Pitzer, but Rice also found some common ground.

“Over a couple days you realize how much you have in common. You’re all college kids,” he said. Even with the structure, the cadets still goof around and find time to relax.

When Rice returned to Claremont, he gained a new appreciation for the freedom Pitzer students enjoy, but also regretted that most Pitzer students never get to see that side of the military. He also cautions Pitzer students against demonizing the military or making sweeping judgments about the soldiers.

“It’s certainly a place I could never see myself, but I absolutely respect the cadets there.”

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