A Look at VWIL During a Pandemic Semester

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year during the pandemic, the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) at MBU has found strength in the characteristics that have defined the corps since its first class of cadets in 1995. 

“Our core values are particularly important to me, as they have so many facets and pertain to just about every part of my life: honor, courage, and commitment,” said Isabelle Ross ’21, who serves as the VWIL safety officer while pursuing a business major. 

As with the entire MBU community, VWIL put the focus on safety, modifying their operations and carrying out health protocols, including face coverings, physical distancing, temperature checks, outdoor settings, reduced group size, virtual participation capabilities for students who were feeling unwell, strategic COVID surveillance testing, and more.

Even while navigating this pandemic semester, the values that Ross mentions hold true and inspire VWIL to move forward together, one day at a time.

“Every time the cadets come together, they say it’s a point of pride,” said Brig. Gen. Terry Djruic, VWIL commandant of cadets. “Every Monday morning as we begin the week playing the National Anthem and every Friday evening when we play taps for retreat, the cadets understand we’re symbolically demonstrating, even through the pandemic, the corps will live on for 25 more years and beyond.”

The Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) marks 25 years this year during the pandemic. Pictured here is the VWIL Class of 2022 in Kable Courtyard following their honor ceremony.

“Our core values pertain to just about every part of my life: honor, courage, and commitment.”

Isabelle Ross ’21, VWIL safety officer

Setting the tone

Flash back to the summer — VWIL’s Cadet First Captain Kristen Franklin ’21 faced a difficult situation. She and her fellow upper-class cadets needed to plan their in-person Cadre Week — when incoming first-year cadets, or nULLs, learn the ways of the corps in drills, training exercises, uniforms, procedures, and much more — entirely virtually.

“Here I am, the brand new commanding officer who’s assuming leadership through a global pandemic,” said Franklin, who’s majoring in sociology. “When August rolled around, I still did not know whether or not I was qualified for this. I just thought the whole thing would be a trainwreck. 

“I could not have been prouder. The corps rose to the occasion. The incoming nULL class learned and successfully started their integration process. Now, did the week go exactly as planned? Absolutely not! But we made it through and set ourselves up for a positive year.”

Commandant Terry Djuric meets virtually with VWIL cadet leaders Cosette Alston, Katie Keegan, and Donetta Thomas, all graduating in 2022. After the pandemic, Djuric plans to continue some virtual meetings as a best practice that helps increase the efficiency of discussions and problem-solving.

It’s all in the experience

With safety modifications, the corps has worked to preserve the VWIL experience during the pandemic, including ROTC programs, leadership seminars, study hours and academic support systems, a virtual visit day, and the annual junior honors celebration. 

Outside, masked, and distanced, the corps continues their formations, and there’s also a virtual option for every gathering for those quarantined. A designated cadet stands back and captures the formation in real time for remote participants to join.   

“We were really laser focused on cadets who might have to quarantine and making sure they wouldn’t feel left out,” Djuric said. “The cadets have persevered through unique personal and professional challenges this semester; together their sense of duty and teamwork has been inspirational.”

“Together the cadets’ sense of duty and teamwork has been inspirational.”

Brig. Gen. Terry Djruic, VWIL commandant of cadets

Cadets use double armed intervals (meaning two arms’ length apart) for their military formations to help with physical distancing.

Physical training, or PT, is a fundamental part of cadet life, and it’s meant to be tough. Wearing face coverings did make it tougher, especially on hot days when the material gets wet, loses permeability, and makes it more challenging to breathe.

“We stuck by it,” Djuric said. “Before school started, we were used to wearing face coverings all the time and setting the right example. If we’re running to Gypsy Hill, which is one of the cadets’ 3-mile routes, we’re all wearing face coverings.”

Ensign Bernesha Dothard, who completed her MBU degree and the VWIL program virtually last spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, performed the Navy ROTC contracting ceremony for Midshipman Tiffany Perrine ’22, who received a Navy scholarship.

Participation in ROTC is important to the corps, with about 75% of cadets planning to commission in the military after graduation. VWIL cadets traveled weekly to VMI for ROTC classes, leadership labs, and monthly for field training, with all the MBU safety precautions in place both on the road and when they arrived. ROTC instructors came to the Mary Baldwin campus to support VWIL cadets in their PT sessions. Throughout the semester, ROTC classes offered virtual capability when needed to safeguard community health and during the two-week period of heightened restrictions.

“Leadership is the same even though you’re masked and socially distanced,” said Djuric. “We’re enabling the cadets to have the same leadership opportunities while modifying the execution to ensure everyone’s safety during the pandemic.”

The day before Election Day, VWIL hosted a leadership seminar focused on racial justice, giving cadets an opportunity to speak about how they were feeling. Cadets of color make up 55% of the corps, so VWIL strives to give all voices the opportunity to be heard. 

With public parades cancelled in Staunton and other cities, the VWIL marching band (which also contains student members who are not cadets) recently held an outdoor, socially distanced performance for a local assisted living home. With all the residents under quarantine in their rooms, band members serenaded them with veterans’ songs from an outside courtyard.

The MBU Marching Band is a blended platoon with cadets and general MBU students like Christina Nguyen ‘24.

‘Lead through anxiety’

The fall semester has been tumultuous: the pandemic, racial injustice, a presidential election, and many other broad forces layered uncertainty and hardship on top of more expected student stressors like exams, part-time jobs, deadlines, and career plans.

“Everyone feels anxiety at different times in their life, and the pandemic certainly heightens that,” Djuric said. “On a daily basis, I hope we’re helping motivate our cadets to lead through anxiety.”

During the pandemic, Djuric and Command Sergeant Major Gerald Johnson, senior enlisted advisor, have encouraged cadets to pay close attention to their health and wellness, and take care of their fellow cadets and classmates.

“People definitely check in on each other more and try to make themselves available if others need anything,” Katie Keegan ’22, VWIL executive officer and applied mathematics major. “Of course people were kind and sympathetic towards each other before the pandemic, but I’ve noticed even more support and empathy throughout this semester.”

“People definitely check in on each other more and try to make themselves available if others need anything.”

Katie Keegan ’22, VWIL executive officer

With the help of the facilities department, the corps of cadets recently volunteered to construct and install the MBU Christmas tree on Page Terrace before students returned home for Thanksgiving break and remote exams.

Visible through the challenges are silver linings, and skills that cadets are learning through the pandemic will help prepare them for their future. 

“I am a planner. I plan absolutely everything, and I love routine,” Franklin said. “But I’ve learned that we can’t always control what happens to us and in the world, no matter how much we’d like to. We can, however, decide how we react to what is going on, what we choose to learn from our experiences, and what opportunities we should seek out.”

In these kinds of lessons, it seems VWIL’s 25th anniversary year truly will stand the test of time.

“We can decide how we react to what is going on, what we choose to learn from our experiences, and what opportunities we should seek out.”

Kristen Franklin ’21, VWIL cadet first captain