It’s 5:30 a.m. on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, and the normally bustling student hub is nearly barren. One of the few out this early is Weinberg first-year Swastik Sharma, dressed in his naval uniform. Before the sun rises, rain or shine, Sharma treks to the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) building on the corner of Sheridan Road and Noyes Avenue for his mandatory fitness training as part of Northwestern’s NROTC program.
Sharma never saw himself joining the military, but when he discovered participating in ROTC would allow him to attend a top-tier university tuition-free, he was eager to join. The unit of about 20 midshipmen, composed of students from both Northwestern and Loyola University Chicago, will all graduate as active members of the United States Navy or Marine Corps. After completing their mandatory service requirement of anywhere from five to eight years based on their chosen path (surface, submarines or aviation), each midshipman can pursue their career of choice or opt to continue their service.
Sharma came across the NROTC program when looking for ways to finance his college education.
“I really wanted to go to a school that has a good economics program, but at the same time, I was really turned off by the cost,” he says.
After speaking with a NROTC recruiter and students who were involved with the program, Sharma decided to apply. Northwestern’s program includes a trial period for first-year enrollees. As long as students complete their first year of training and a summer cruise, they are allowed to exit the program without being tied to the service commitment and still not pay tuition for their first year.
“I was a person who initially was very skeptical, but I’ve definitely been way more enthusiastic as time has gone on,” Sharma says. “I’m very, very happy with the program.”
Weinberg first-year Kate Virsik first got involved with the Navy in high school when she was a member of the Naval Sea Cadets Corps Program. The program exposes students to various military experiences, such as recruit and medical training.
“That [program] was what made me think maybe I’d want to continue to do this in the long run,” she says.
As a Sea Cadet, Virsik also performed military marches and songs in a band at events to honor veterans. Their dedication and sacrifices inspired her, and Virsik’s interactions with servicemen and servicewomen enhanced her deep-seated patriotism.
“The largest reason I joined was because I want to serve this country,” she says. “I think that’s also part of it for everyone else that joined.”Katie Virski, Weinberg first-year
“The largest reason I joined was because I want to serve this country,” she says. “I think that’s also part of it for everyone else that joined.”
Outside of the standard classes for their majors, NROTC students take two Naval Sciences courses each year that focus on the culture, standards, technology and strategy of the Navy and Marines, as well as a year-long Naval Science Lab. The lab requires students to dress in uniform and discuss U.S. current events, along with bringing in guest speakers from the Navy or Marine Corps. Students are also required to take physics and calculus classes.
Then there’s the most infamous aspect of the NROTC program: the physical training. Members are required to remain physically fit through frequent group exercise, coupled with individual workouts in their free time. Routine fitness tests track whether members can fulfill the required number of pushups, plank time and mile run-time.
Though challenging, Sharma finds this requirement fosters a sense of camaraderie among the midshipmen, as they can discuss their strengths and weaknesses.
Since workouts and Naval courses take place in the early morning, well before the average Northwestern student’s dreaded 9 a.m., Sharma has found his schedule is quite different from his peers.
“[There are] a lot of moments where I wake up at 5 a.m. and I see my roommate just going to bed,” Sharma says.
Virsik also attests to the extra commitment NROTC requires in the early mornings.
“I’m not close friends with any varsity athletes, but I imagine it’s probably similar in the sense that you are a student, but you also have this other thing that takes a lot of priority in your life,” she says.
Though an NROTC member’s day-to-day can be overwhelming, Sharma explains the close ties between the battalion’s members makes the adjustment to the unusual schedule more bearable.
“When you [first] see seniors, you’re already a little bit afraid of them because you don’t know how formal you have to be with them,” Sharma says.
However, Weinberg fourth-year Matthew Lindstrom quickly assumed the role of a mentor for the first-year.
“He immediately was just like, ‘You know what, I was in your shoes. Here’s what I did,’ and he gave me a lot of resources,” Sharma says.
Lindstrom is currently the only Northwestern senior in the unit. Most of the former midshipmen had to leave the unit for medical reasons, a strict requirement of the NROTC program Lindstrom almost failed to meet this year after getting pneumonia. Others chose to leave because the program’s intense atmosphere was a poor fit for them.
Northwestern’s NROTC unit is one of the smallest in the country, which Lindstrom believes is an asset. There is an unprecedented amount of interaction between upperclassmen and underclassmen, a common barrier in other units and in the Navy itself. The smaller unit also allows each person, even first-years, to take on additional leadership roles.
“All of us freshmen are very enthusiastic about the program, partly because the juniors and seniors are very welcoming,” Sharma says. “They’re very happy to have us here. I think a lot of them really want to build up the unit.”
The program is growing in numbers, with around 10 new midshipmen coming in from the Class of 2027. Even current freshmen who were skeptical of their long-term commitment to the program, like Sharma, have become dedicated members hoping to continue the legacy of NROTC at Northwestern dating back to the 1940s.
The broader Northwestern community is often unaware of the NROTC program. In fact, Virsik explains many people are surprised when she mentions she is part of the program here.
“A lot of people don’t know it exists here because we only wear [our uniforms] in the morning,” Virsik says. “So unless you’re up really early, you’re probably not going to see us in uniform.”
Though there can be a stigma surrounding the military, Sharma and Virsik haven’t experienced any backlash from the rest of the student body. In fact, many of Virsik’s peers are curious to learn more about her experiences in NROTC. Sharma found even his own preconceived notions about ROTC were unfounded.
“One of the things I was worried about the most coming to ROTC was if they’re just gonna be a bunch of people who are just very obsessed with the military,” he says. “The people in the program are people who are very physically fit, but they are very academically capable.”
Lindstrom acknowledges that along with the curious and supportive parts of the student body, there are some vocal anti-military members of the community.
“They are very real reasons to be critical of the military, so I don’t look down upon those students,” he says. “Maybe we have disagreements, but their criticisms are fair, and they’re worthy of attention.”
After completing the post-graduation service commitment, NROTC members can go down any path they choose, whether it’s staying in the ranks or moving away from the military entirely. Currently, Sharma’s plan is to pursue a career in economic policy, likely in a government role.
He says even with only one year of NROTC experience under his wing, he already gained skills applicable to his future employment. He believes his experience as a public servant and his knowledge of the military will give him a leg up.
“I also feel the kind of discipline I’ve had to build in managing ROTC, staying on top of my grades and not falling behind physically or academically is really, really powerful,” Sharma says.
Lindstrom feels NROTC has taken him on a journey of personal growth. Though he doesn’t know if he will continue his service after his mandatory commitment is complete, he feels NROTC has prepared him for any path he would take.
“That kind of support system is really rare,” he says. “It’s a laboratory for leadership and professional development. There’s no other place I really experience that at Northwestern.”