For almost all members of the Class of 2008, the coming years will be spent pursuing advanced degrees or entering the job market. But for Christopher D. Estela and David T. Zielinski, Commencement Weekend signals the beginning of four years of active duty as commissioned officers.
In a May 24 commissioning ceremony in Willard Straight Hall that marked the end of their training as Cornell Army ROTC cadets, the two Cornell graduates -- an unusually small class -- were sworn into duty with the rank of second lieutenant, received their colors and their first salute as officers. Estela will be stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Zielinski eventually will be stationed in South Korea.
Cornell trustee Martin Y. Tang '70, a Hong Kong businessman who trained in the Army ROTC as an undergraduate, served as guest speaker for the ceremony.
Tang recalled his own commissioning ceremony during the Vietnam War attended by an anonymous anti-war protester "dressed in a grim-reaper costume, which was quite a surprise for my parents."
No such protests occurred during Saturday's event.
Tang graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and a commission in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and was stationed in Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. He recently announced a gift to create the Martin Y. Tang International Scholarship Challenge at Cornell, under which he will match cash gifts and commitments of $750,000 or more, on a $1 for $3 basis, with the goal of creating 12 scholarship endowments of $1 million each.
"The leadership training I received in Barton Hall has stood me in good stead," said Tang. "I hope you will remember this day as one of the most important days in your life, and I hope you will come back to campus and give back to your school."
The parents of both students were asked to step up to pin on the epaulets that are the mark of a commissioned officer, and then each student spoke briefly. Both thanked their families and loved ones for their support and acknowledged the fine training they had received from the ROTC officers who were present.
Army Sgt. Michael Hart provided both newly minted officers with their "first salute" also known as the "silver dollar salute." As part of a longstanding tradition, the newly commissioned officer hands a silver dollar to the first enlisted soldier who salutes him or her. According to the ceremony program, "many an old soldier has cashed in on this tradition by posting himself near the commissioning ceremony."
Hart said he has collected four silver dollars so far this year.
The Cornell ROTC graduates represent only a portion of the total number of cadets who will be commissioned this year by officers in Cornell's Excelsior Battalion. Cornell ROTC also trains students from area schools, and commissioning ceremonies are being held for students at the State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton, SUNY Cortland and Elmira College, bringing the total number of graduating ROTC cadets to 14. Fall classes are full, said Lt. Col. Brian R. Paige, with at least 15 Cornell freshmen and a similar number of sophomores signed on as cadets.
Paige stressed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not responsible for the low number of cadets in this class, pointing out that ROTC numbers at Cornell actually increased after the invasion of those two countries.
"But we can do a better job of getting the message of what Cornell Army ROTC has to offer across to Cornell students," he said.
Zielinski said the war in Iraq "wasn't something I thought about too much" when he signed on for ROTC training.
"Naturally it was something we hoped would come to an end," he said. "But I will accept whatever happens. This is a good day."