At 7 a.m. sharp on a crisp Tuesday in February, thousands of men and women dressed in military uniforms pour out of dorms on a Texas college campus.
The cadets fall into perfectly symmetrical lines and salute their leader. The faint sound of a bugle carries over a speaker. The commander yells orders, and each block marches into a dining hall.
This is not a military academy; it’s Texas A&M University, and the men and women who line up for formation twice a day in perfectly pressed uniforms are part of the Corps of Cadets, a student military group being led for the first time in its 140-year history by a woman, 21-year-old Corps Commander Alyssa Michalke.
When asked what it means to be the first woman to lead the Corps, she is deferential.
“I can guarantee you there have been women before me who were more deserving of the position than I was,” she said, the badges she’s earned glimmering on her uniform. “But it was just because they weren’t in the right place at the right time … or there was a more qualified male individual who took the spot.”
It’s hard to think of what could make Michalke more qualified to lead this group of 2,400 students. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Schulenberg, Texas. Now, in her senior year of college, she has an above-average GPA while double majoring in civil and ocean engineering — where she is again one of few women in the room. She plays softball and basketball and has earned leadership positions each year within the Corps.
Steeped in tradition
The Corps has historically been mostly male and was even a requirement for anyone who wished to attend Texas A&M in its early, all-male days. Even now, with the school co-ed since the 1960s and the Corps accepting women for the past 40 years, only 15 percent of its members are women. The pattern of a male-dominated Corps has been hard to break in this school that is steeped in tradition.
The school is so passionate about its traditions that, even though Texas A&M no longer plays its archnemesis University of Texas in football, students still sing a 100-year-old fight song that centers around “goodbye to the orange and the white.” The schools haven’t played each other in football since 2011, when Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC.
But with time, even the strongest traditions make a shift. And this school year, it was selecting Michalke to lead the Corps. She says she wasn’t surprised to hear about resistance when she was named commander.
“We still have some of the people with the ‘good old boy’ attitude, who don’t necessarily respect women in leadership positions,” she said. “I put a lot of time and effort into working as hard as I could making sure that this year ran as smoothly as possible so they couldn’t point to a female leader being the root of all problems.”
And she certainly puts in a lot of time, clocking only about four hours of sleep a night so she can juggle her full class load, her Corps duties and her role shaping the path of the Corps; one of her goals this year is to raise the cadets’ average GPA.
While she and other women fight to make change in the group, the rest of the campus of about 60,000 students carries on with trends of the moment. Students in skinny jeans Snapchat on their iPhones, their ears covered in Beats by Dre headphones. Mixed into that crowd are the cadets, as if from a lost era, clad in Vietnam-era military uniforms and not allowed to use cell phones while walking on campus in uniform.
Not a feminist
The impact of Michalke’s rise on other campus women is already apparent. In February, the board of students and former military officers who elect each year’s Corps commander selected another woman to succeed Michalke: Cecille Sorio.
Sorio says Michalke paved the way for her and for other women in their group.
“When people found out that a woman would be leading a Corps of almost 2,400 people, they were taken aback, because it wasn’t the image they were used to,” Sorio said. “Looking back at what she’s done with the Corps, it’s made a lot of positive progress. She’s made a good name for change.”
Even outside the Corps, seeing a woman picked to lead a predominantly male group piqued the attention of then-sophomore Hannah Wimberly.
Wimberly, a human resource development major, was inspired to run for student body president, partially because of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” (“my favorite book in the whole world”) and partially because of Michalke.
“Having her around is definitely something that gives me more confidence,” she said. “It’s led other women (on campus) to say, ‘I can accomplish my goals,’ because they’ve seen Alyssa do the same thing.”
Wimberly, now 21, was elected to be the campus’ first female student body president in 15 years.
Some would call this sea change a feminist coup, yet Michalke doesn’t see herself in those terms.
“I can’t say that I identify as a feminist, to be quite honest. I know there’s some people who claim there’s a glass ceiling for females — that they’ll never be able to reach CEO or president or five-star general,” she said.
“I think, as long as you work hard, respect those people and serve them to the best of your abilities, there’s really no glass ceiling to be broken.”