Faces of ROTC: Cadets aim to find balance

Mariah Hicks

Seth McNutt, then a college freshman, sat at his desk in his “Seven Ideas that Shook the Universe “class when his phone began to ring. Trying to keep up with taking notes, he forwarded the call to voicemail. A few minutes later, he received a text message.

He was going to be a dad. McNutt was in disbelief.

The realization he couldn’t afford college and a child settled in. Soon after, McNutt received an email from Sergeant Michael Russ, a National Guard recruiter. He decided to enlist to help him provide for his son and pay for school.

Russ directed McNutt to the office of Kent State’s Army ROTC recruiting officer, Bill Terry.

“It ended up working out perfect. I went and spoke with him, and at first I just wanted to enlist (in the National Guard), but Sergeant Russ shares an office with Mr. Terry, and Mr. Terry is the ROTC recruiter,” McNutt said. “And little ‘ole civilian Seth McNutt walked in just looking to enlist and walked out signed up for ROTC, too.”

This decision required a major investment of McNutt’s time, transitioning him from a regular student to both a student and cadet. Fulfilling ROTC requirements became a priority along with satisfying requirements for his major.

“When school started, it was a nightmare. It was very distracting because every day I wanted to go see him. I wanted to be in his life because my father wasn’t in my life at all. I’ve got a couple memories of him and that’s it,” McNutt said. “Ever since I found out, my worst fear was that he was going to grow up and not know who his dad was and not appreciate what I do for him.”

Finding balance over the years has been tough for McNutt. Now, along with his two-year-old son, and commitment to the National Guard and ROTC, he works 60-65 hours a week as a supervisor for a private security company, is in a social fraternity and is vice president of a business fraternity.

McNutt struggled to prioritize everything on his plate, but Capt. Joshua Donecker, one of ROTC’s assistant professors of military science, stepped in and gave advice.

“That’s when I really started to talk to Capt. Donecker about how difficult this was and how I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, and that’s when he said, ‘You need to take time to yourself. You need to be able to just drop all this stuff that you think is super important right now, and is important, but is not as important as family,’” McNutt said.

Donecker and McNutt both started the ROTC program the same year, McNutt as a cadet and Donecker as an instructor. Donecker initiated conversation with McNutt after noticing his distant behavior.

“Most of our students, they’re experiencing life for the first time on their own, and there’s a whole list of new responsibilities and stressors coming to them being a college student and an ROTC student,” Donecker said. “I always try to just get them to slow down and prioritize whatever’s going on and kind of tackle one thing at a time, because usually it’s never one thing.”

McNutt continues to count on Donecker for advice in times of need, setting up times to meet in his office.

“After that first time I spoke with him, it was very comforting. He’s very intelligent, very good at communicating and relates well with anything you tell him,” McNutt said. “After that, anytime I had a problem or I was struggling and didn’t know what to do, it seemed like the right thing to do to go to Capt. Donecker.”

Prioritizing became routine for McNutt after taking Donecker’s advice.

“It was just a matter of taking everything that I had put on my plate and just moving it to the side to take time for just him (his son), which still didn’t add a whole lot of time with him, but it made the time that I had with him more quality,” McNutt said.

McNutt usually tries to request off a full weekend each month to spend time at home with his son. Their quality time is typically spent bonding over a book or being creative.

“He loves, loves when people read to him,” McNutt said. “He loves to paint and draw and color and play with the hot wheels; my old hot wheels from when I was a little kid. He loves cars.”

Getting to this point of balance has been a journey for McNutt. He isn’t the only one who struggled to find balance. Cadets in the program typically juggle a lot on their plates.

“Even as soldiers we like challenges, we like projects, we like to multitask, and I would say probably 70 to 80 percent of our students have multiple things going on,” said Maj. Dan Mueller, an assistant professor of military science and executive officer of Kent’s Army ROTC.

ROTC isn’t just classes or physical training. Cadets have four years to transform from a person who has little military experience into someone who can lead a troop.

“They’re doing hands-on critical thinking, and that’s what sets this program apart from a leadership class because it’s not just by PowerPoints. It’s actually practicing it and learning to understand how your leadership ability affects others and how influencing others can be done in multiple ways,” Mueller said. 

Haley Sommer is a cadet and senior biochemistry major, and along with ROTC, she is a member of Kent State’s jazz orchestra. She also volunteers in a neuroendocrinology lab helping graduate students with research and is a member of two fraternities.

Sommer’s involvement in the jazz orchestra requires time out of her schedule. They do a lot of outreach as an orchestra, including playing at local high schools and in jazz festivals with their biggest gig in Brooklyn, New York.

“When I’m busier, I do better in ROTC and in my classes,” Sommer said. “It (ROTC) teaches you a lot of discipline right off the bat, so if you show up to things as a freshman you’re going to get that structure right away.”

Sommer must keep to a tight schedule to balance final requirements with graduation approaching.

“I think I just figured it (would balance) out this semester as I’m about to graduate,” Sommer said.

Graduation is approaching for McNutt as he begins to find balance, too.

“Having a son really helped me to wake up and realize that college is great, but it isn’t going to last forever,” McNutt said. “So rather than going in blind to adulthood, working and having a real life and not this college life, and having some kind of experience to make that transition easier will definitely help.”

Mariah Hicks is the military and veterans reporter. Contact her at [email protected].