For more than 1,000 rising high school seniors, the Summer Leaders Seminar, or SLS, was a week-long exploration of the academic, athletic and military opportunities at West Point. Established by the West Point Admissions Office in 1976, SLS is a total immersion experience into what life as a cadet is like, led by the cadets themselves.
Class of 2013 Cadet Michael Sands wanted to provide students not with a sales pitch, but a real insider's look into the academy.
“It's not about getting every student wanting to come to the academy, but helping them to understand West Point and letting them make the decision for themselves,” the SLS squad leader said. “We're not sugar-coating anything here. We tell them how it's like. Beast is rough. We're going to tell them it is rough.”
During the week, candidates ask cadets anything and can expect direct and honest answers, from explaining what Beast (Cadet Basic Training) is like to what kind of food is served at the Cadet Mess.
Class of 2013 Cadet Kramer Peak led the candidates of 6th Squad, 1st Platoon, and enjoyed the chance to transition from taking orders to giving them.
“It's a huge leadership role for me,” Peak said. “Because in the past years I've been a member of a squad taking orders and doing what I've been told to do. Now we're learning what characteristics we have that make us good leaders, and what's the best way we can lead.”
More than 50 percent of SLS candidates have historically returned to West Point as cadets, so there's a good chance Peak may see these students again. With that in mind, Peak said, it's important not to give any false impressions about the academy.
“Hopefully I can accurately portray what West Point is all about and its main mission -- to develop leaders of character,” Peak said. “I also want to show them that it's not all business all the time. You can have fun, meet great people and make lifelong relationships, like with these guys I'm with now, I'm extremely close with the cadre members here and would do anything for them.”
Last summer, he met the demands of Cadet Field Training and a Physical Individual Advanced Development program with the Army baseball team. Although not as rigorous a regimen, SLS can take its toll on the cadets.
After the first class graduated, the cadre had only hours to reset before welcoming a new class the following day. For nearly all of the cadets, that meant giving their hoarse and tired voices a much-needed rest.
“It's not so much from screaming, but having to be loud all the time and projecting a commanding voice,” Peak said.
Maintaining that high level of motivation for so long was a strain on the vocal chords, but the SLS commander, Class of 2012 Cadet Pamela Baker, said hers was conditioned from serving as a platoon sergeant at Beast Barracks last summer for the Class of 2014.
Baker, a former SLS candidate, said the application process to West Point is a long and tedious one. Having a chance to spend time at the academy and get a better sense of the environment, the people and its mission has become an important part of that process for many candidates.
“I remember being able to talk to the cadets and ask them any questions I had,” Baker said. “It didn't matter what the question was or how many, there was nothing they couldn't tell us about West Point. It was the opportunity I needed to get the real perspective from the cadets.”
This cadet perspective is what swayed her from possibly entering the Naval Academy, and it's what she wants the cadet cadre to provide again this summer.
“If they leave here with questions unanswered, then we've failed,” Baker said. “If they leave with a full understanding about what the academy is all about and knowing what it means to be a cadet here, then we've done our job.”
Patrick Haffinger is a West Point Class of 2016 hopeful who resides in Moraga, Calif., and is attending the College Preparatory School in Oakland. After several classroom sessions, low crawling through the mud, 5 a.m. wake-up calls, eating meals, ready to eat in the field nothing has dissuaded him from wanting to join the Long Gray Line.
“I want to go to West Point incredibly bad. I love this place,” Haffinger said. “It's an understatement to say this is my first choice.”
Haffinger said he has meticulously combed through the service academy forums and has learned as much as he can about West Point.
He doesn't have a particular focus on any area of studies right now, but Haffinger spent his classroom time learning about the Civil and Mechanical Engineering program, Leadership and Ethics, and Systems Engineering.
“The biggest thing for me was learning that the cadets, with their honor code and everything they do, are not robots. They have personalities. They find ways to cope and deal with things,” Haffinger said. “The way that they've interacted with us this week only makes me want to come here more.”
To learn more about the SLS program, visit the West Point Admissions website.