NMMI Scholars Program: Building the Citizen Leaders of Tomorrow

By: LTC Kalith Smith, Director of Toles Learning Resource Center

Several years ago, I was tasked with setting up a program for talented and driven students at New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI). It was a daunting task. How do you take a curriculum that has been vetted and improved over the course of 125 years and make it even more challenging? To read more about the program we developed, click here.

We determined the key issue was building a student’s ability to think critically across the spectrum. Challenging to be sure, but what we identified as the skill that our most successful alumni possess was being able to try new things, and, regardless of success or failure, build on those results and do it while creating, living and breathing teamwork. This was recently highlighted as Laura Entis (2017) wrote about what Fortune 500 executives are looking for in their employees: team players who can dream big and work with others to achieve a goal ethically and keep moving forward no matter the obstacles. Our challenge, in short – how do we develop the citizen-leaders that will guide the nation in the coming century?

Creating an environment where students would learn to follow rules and learn the importance of the structure that is a constant at military school while challenging themselves academically is tough. A team comprised of all the Department Chairs developed the curriculum that would be somewhat flexible, dependent on the Scholar’s intended thesis topic. A student would have to take the necessary courses, but they could accelerate their studies in a subject area of interest. The team keyed in on utilizing the summer for students to continue to challenge themselves. We decided to accelerate English so all of the students who enter the program after their 9th grade year will work incredibly hard over the summer to complete sophomore English, then enroll in junior English as 10th graders. This initial test of will is necessary for students to determine if this challenging curriculum is right for them.

For the second summer, we needed a program that would push students to consider not just what was in a textbook but the roots of our knowledge. To question everything and consider better alternatives, students needed to learn how Western thought was derived. Answering the question of how we ended up here as a civilization seemed crucial in considering where we were going. The decision was made that St. John’s College’s Great Books Program would provide the groundwork, as students could choose an academic topic that interested them and find out what the entire timeline of thought on the topic considered. Recently St. John’s College was singled out in American higher education in being “contrarian,” helping students to think differently, to not just fall into the trap of believing what they are taught, but to learn the fundamentals of how we think. As noted in the New York Times (Bruni, 2018), Walter Sterling, the Dean of the Santa Fe campus noted:

Your work and career are a part of your life…Education should prepare you for all of your life. It should make you a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy.

As fate would have it, success breeds success. As NMMI considered how to build a more global student body, we were presented with study-abroad opportunities that are unique and provide not only an immersion experience overseas but an immersion experience at some phenomenal boarding schools. The Scholars are poised to be the first to take advantage of these new opportunities, as their hard work and tenacity have been proven over two summers of intellectually challenging offerings. In creating our future citizen-leaders, NMMI believes in the power of our global community, and studying in another country provides an experience that cannot be replicated.

The class of 2018 saw the first two students complete the entire Scholars Program, including completing challenging coursework and writing a thesis. Each student related their area of interest to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This culmination of the Scholars Experience is key to being “freed” from a way of thinking that all too often in American education is locked into learning as it is needed for a test versus breaking free from the confines of the traditional model and pushing yourself farther. In the hands of these young people, the future of the American Experience is bright. As we always have, we choose to break free of our confines and imagine the possibilities. I can only imagine the shadows that the Founding Fathers saw on the wall, but they signed the Declaration anyway. How trying were the times of Lincoln, but the Emancipation Proclamation was made and its wake fundamentally changed our nation. How challenging were they days of Dr. King, but he saw a future where we would all be, “free at last”.

The next great American leaders are in our classrooms, practice fields and dining halls today. We don’t know the challenges of the future, but we do know that, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty” Winston Churchill. We are still a home to tomorrow’s leaders and these young cadets have the foundation to change the world.

To help support future Scholars through the NMMI Foundation, please contact Kris Ward in Development at 575-624-8158 or wardk@nmmi.edu.

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