West Point cadets lead the country in tackling real issues

August 27th, 2020 | News, News and Features
Upperclass cadets took part in a two-week program called Cadet Leader Development ran by other cadets and faculty. The program allowed difficult discussions on various topics. The core aspect of the training involved “Tree Talks,” where cadets sat outside and had one-to-one personal discussions in an informal setting on a multitude of issues that affect their lives. Courtesy Photo

By Class of 2022 Cadet John Cote

What makes the U.S. Military Academy unique? Is it the past graduates and their great achievements? Is it the quality education and training received? Or is it the beautiful campus and its grand architecture? None of these answers are necessarily wrong, however, I feel there is an answer that embodies all of these — legacy. West Point’s legacy evolves through the actions of the cadets, as we are the continuation of the Long Gray Line that extends back to the first graduates in 1802. We use the wisdom of those who came before to guide us into the future.
It’s been a tough year, to say the least. There are real problems that need to be solved and emotions that need to be managed. It is very simple to tear everything down right now and start over. It takes nine months to build a house and it can take one day to tear it down (Excuse me, for I just read a book on real estate).
Until I became a cadet, I had never thought of West Point as being a microcosm of America. Every state and congressional district is represented at West Point. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that West Point faces and recognizes the same issues as America. Cadet leadership acknowledges that racism, mental health and sexual assault and harassment are issues at West Point.
As the national discussion on those issues continues, upperclass cadets for the first time took part in a two-week program called Cadet Leader Development ran by other cadets and faculty. The program allowed difficult discussions on these topics.
CLD served two purposes. The first was that it was a controlled monitoring period for cadets returning to West Point who didn’t have other details during the summer. This pseudo-quarantine enabled the Corps of Cadets to have a semester on campus as opposed to being virtual. The other objective was to make up for some lost training due to COVID-19.
Class of 2022 Cadet Ali Ingraham piloted the core aspect of the training called “Tree Talks.” Cadets sat outside, socially distanced of course, and had one-to-one personal discussions in an informal setting.
These Tree Talks addressed a multitude of issues. Along with racism, the topics of mental health and resiliency were discussed. First, cadets were taught about the idea and technique of active listening. Many people claim they are active listeners, but do any of us put it into practice? The odds say probably not. Ingraham taught us to not listen to respond but to listen to understand.
Every cadet has his or her own perspective and wants to be heard. I had the opportunity to partake in one of the Tree Talks on the issue of mental health. I was paired up with someone from a very different background from my own, however, we found that we both had very similar experiences in mental health. I believe these personal one-on-one talks with people who have different experiences than us foster a better understanding of these issues that both America and West Point face. Obviously, these issues won’t be solved by just talking, however, it is more efficient to tackle a problem when a better understanding is acquired. I was able to interview a few cadets about their experience in the Tree Talks and I have highlighted some of their experiences below:
• Class of 2021 Cadet Donovan Velez and I discussed his experience in the Tree Talks. He described how, growing up, his parents always reminded him to keep two hands on the wheel during a traffic stop. He went on to say that because of his African American ethnicity, his parents stressed what to do when approached by police. Velez said he felt “hopeful” that he was able to share his upbringing with other cadets who didn’t have those experiences.
• Class of 2021 Cadet Jaylin Davis, who is Black, shared with his small group of cadets that he has had a lot of trouble trusting West Point as he felt that because of his ethnicity, the institution was out to get him. However, after sharing his story, he told me he felt excited to be heard and has put more trust in the institution because of the way cadets received his story.
• A female cadet from the Class of 2021 said she had never had the opportunity to discuss her past mental health struggles in front of a group of cadets. She said at first it was difficult to tell her story in front of peers but, afterward, she expressed, “It felt good to describe my story and inspire other cadets to share theirs to each other.”
After the conclusion of the Tree Talks, each cadet company was tasked with writing up and sending their suggestions and solutions to the CLD cadet leadership. The culminating event for CLD was cadet leadership presenting their suggestions to the West Point board of directors. The board of directors includes the superintendent, the commandant, the dean, the athletic director, director of admissions and the USMA chief of staff.
You may wonder what the next step will be as West Point commences the 2020-21 academic year faced with many obstacles caused by our COVID-19 environment. The most important task is to continue these conversations. Whether the topic is racism, mental health or sexual assault and harassment, if we continue to have productive conversations, we will continue to have a better understanding of these problems.