In February, Texas A&M University announced that Alyssa Michalke, a twenty-year-old junior from Schulenburg, would become the first female commander of the corps of cadets in the school’s 139-year history. The significance of her appointment can’t be overstated. After the corps first accepted female members, in 1974, the women were often insulted, even physically abused. Recently, the corps has drawn more women to leadership positions, and Michalke’s appointment turns a page in the corps’ history book. She formally assumed command May 9.
Katy Vine: Though you were already a corps sergeant major, the highest rank for any cadet who isn’t a senior, and clearly on a leadership track, the news of this appointment must have still come as a surprise. How did you hear about your selection?
Alyssa Michalke: I found out about the appointment almost a week after I interviewed for the position. I was called into a meeting with the commandant, Brigadier General Joe Ramirez Jr.; the current corps commander, David Trigg; and two of the commandant’s officers on the staff. The commandant sat me down and he said, “You know, Alyssa, I know this is kind of bad timing considering you’re going to be leaving for New Orleans in about twelve hours. [A group of cadets was scheduled to march in a Mardi Gras parade.] But you’re going to be my corps commander next year.” I tried to say something, but I couldn’t—it was like my heart just stopped. I couldn’t talk. My mouth was kind of hanging halfway open; I probably looked silly. The corps commander, David, looked over at me and said, “It’s okay, Alyssa. Breathe.” Finally, I choked out, “It’d be an honor, sir, to serve as corps commander.”
KV: Have you heard from many of the former female cadets?
AM: About a week after my appointment was announced, we had a reunion celebrating forty years of women in the corps, so I got to hear a lot of their stories and see how much a female appointment means to them.
KV: What kinds of stories were they telling you?
AM: The first few females that came through the corps went through so much more adversity than I ever did. They told me stories about how the guys would mistreat them—even some of the professors and the cadre members on the commandant’s staff would treat them terribly. One told me a story about how she woke up one night and there was a male cadet in her room trying to light a shoe polish tin with dynamite in it; she grabbed a combat boot and hit him in the face, and he ran off. She got up and looked at the tin and it was full of BBs and metal shards and glass—if it had gone off, it would have done some damage, if not killed her.
Most of the females had tears in their eyes when they came and told me congratulations. All of the work they put in twenty, thirty, forty years ago finally came to fruition.
KV: Along with a lot of praise, I’ve seen some really ugly comments on the stories announcing your appointment. One comment read, “College-age guys are not going to respect college-age chicks appointed to honorary positions above them . . . in the real world this would never happen.” What is your response to that?
AM: I don’t read it. My dad always told me, “Concern yourself with the people who matter most to you, not people who are sitting behind closed doors, because those people, if they can’t say it to your face, it shouldn’t matter to you at all.”
KV: It sounds like the nastiness is really only online and isn’t affecting you in other ways.
AM: I’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from current cadets and from former corps commanders. One gentleman emailed me and gave me advice, basically saying, “You’re in for one heck of a ride, so enjoy it while it lasts, because it goes by quickly.” That kind of stuff has just been great. For every negative comment or every negative response, I get ten, fifteen emails, or ten or fifteen people, telling me, “I sure look forward to what you are doing, best of luck, do a good job.”
KV: Have you experienced discrimination?
AM: There was only one offhand comment. Shortly after it was announced that I’d be serving as a sergeant major, someone made the comment that I had potential to become the next “five-diamond bitch on the Quad.” One of my good friends heard it and wanted to go beat the guy up. I told him, “Don’t worry about it. Let it go.” But other than that, I really haven’t faced any trouble at all.
KV: Right now, about only 300 of the 2,300 cadets are female—
AM: It’s about closer to 250 or so.
KV: Do you anticipate that seeing a woman in the role of commander will draw more women to the corps?
AM: We’ve had females on the rise in the corps since the new commandant, General Ramirez, has been here. We’ve seen an increase in females every single year, and I think he wants to corps up to 20 percent female by 2020. We’ve also seen an increase in females in leadership roles in general. Not too long ago we had a senior female who was the chief of staff, which is a pretty high-ranking position. And this year three of our major unit commanders are female. So women are getting more involved in leadership in the corps, which I hope will continue to draw women into the corps .
KV: It’s certainly good having your face out there, I suppose.
AM: If I can inspire one woman to join the corps, even if it’s just for a few days—even if it’s only two days and she can learn something about herself and about life lessons—then I think I’ve done my job.
KV: There’s an old question that people always ask when a woman takes on a job that will be tough, where they’ll be scrutinized, and that is: Why would you want a job like that? Why join the corps if it makes your life so much more difficult?
AM: I played a lot of sports in high school—I did cross country, I did basketball, I did softball, I did golf, and I did yearbook and band, National Honor Society, and I had a part-time job. I love that challenge of staying busy and pushing myself. The corps offers a unique four-year leadership experience. Your freshman year, you’re a follower; your sophomore year you’re directly responsible for four to six freshmen, training them very directly on how to make a bed, how to clean a room, how to shine their shoes, how to put a uniform on; and then junior year is about indirect leadership, leading the sophomores, working with the seniors to accomplish their vision and goals; and senior year is all about setting your vision and goals, setting policies and procedures that will help us accomplish our strategic goals. So I knew that the corps would help me become a better leader, and help me do well in the private sector.
KV: Well, how would you describe your corps experience?
AM: It’s been life-changing, and really challenging. I remember freshman year I’d roll into my bed every night exhausted—mentally, physically, spiritually—and it just got old really quickly. But I realized it was making me a better person. I was going to be a better person, I was going to be a better Aggie, a better leader, a better employee once I got out of college. My best friends are in the corps. I’ve known them for only three years, compared to my high school friends, who I’ve known since I was three or four, but I’m better friends with some of these guys in the corps than some of those friends.
KV: What do you think you have to offer in this position that maybe some of the other applicants couldn’t?
AM: I’ve got a very blue-collar mentality. Since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I was taught that hard work is going to get you where you need to be in life. My family, friends, coaches, and teachers told me, “If you want something, you have to work harder than anybody else, because somebody out there wants the same exact thing, and if you don’t work harder than them, they’re going to get it.” That’s always in the back of my mind.
KV: Any idea what you’re going to do after graduation?
AM: I’m probably going to work offshore on those large oil platforms. That’s kind of the dream.
KV: When did the dream start?
AM: Early on in high school, when my dad told me stories about how he was an offshore welder, how they’d fish out there, and how much fun it was. I entertained the thought of just going to trade school and becoming an underwater welder, but my mom was like, “No, you don’t need to do that.” The oil and gas business appeals to me because I want to get out and travel a bit. I’m from a small town and don’t want to be cooped up in a big-city office all day.