Serving his country by shaping the lives of OSU students

Lt. Gabriel Burgi works out with members of the Naval ROTC at Oregon State University. (photo by Eric Buist, Buistmedia)

For Lt. Gabriel Burgi, a career in the United States Navy not only gave him a direction in life, it provided him a chance to inspire other young people looking for the right path. Burgi is the surface warfare instructor for Oregon State University’s Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC), and has been stationed at OSU since February 2011.

Burgi teaches Navy and Marine Corps ROTC students and advises incoming freshmen to the program, as well as recruiting new students. Like other ROTC faculty, he has been assigned to the OSU campus after years of military experience, and will continue his service after his deployment to Corvallis has ended.

Growing up in the small town of Tehachapi, Calif., Burgi finished high school and was working in a grocery store, with no solid plans for his future. At the time, college didn’t seem the right fit, so, on a whim, he decided to enlist in the Navy. His father had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, so Burgi grew up hearing stories about his service.

ROTC Series

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established land grant universities. To celebrate, we’re featuring stories about ROTC faculty at OSU. Creating ROTC programs at land grants was an important part of the Act.

“He said he had a great time in the Navy. So I just dove in,” Burgi said.

Although he admits to knowing little about the Navy at the time, it turned out to be a good fit. Burgi started out as a submarine Torpedoman’s Mate, and while stationed in Bangor, Wash., on the USS Georgia, he learned that if he applied for and was accepted into a Naval officer program, he could get his college education paid for, as well as advance his naval career.

Burgi began studying at the University of Idaho, majoring in fishery resources. At first he was focused simply on getting through his coursework so he could get back to his career, but his ROTC advisor finally pointed out that he was not engaging in a crucial part of ROTC life — leadership development.

“I started volunteering for things, and shared the focus between academics and helping everyone else,” he said. “It was very rewarding. I went from being the person no one knew to becoming battalion commanding officer, and I’d never seen myself in that position.”

After completing his degree, he received his commission as a surface warfare officer, and was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2006.

When it was time to transfer to a new assignment in 2011, Burgi decided to look for an ROTC faculty position on the West Coast.

“I went through the ROTC program at University of Idaho, had a great time and learned a lot there,” he said. “I really looked up to the instructors. I decided becoming an ROTC instructor was something I could do to give back.”

But Burgi was surprised to realize exactly how busy he’d be as a faculty member. He recalls his ROTC instructors always making time to chat with him. Now he realizes how much they were sacrificing to make time for him.

“The biggest thing I learned is that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on as an instructor,” he said. “It was really nice of my instructors to make it seem like they were always available.”

Lt. Gabriel Burgi leads a class of Naval ROTC students at OSU. (photo by Eric Buist, Buistmedia)

In addition to teaching one to two courses a term (Navigation and Seamanship and Operations), Burgi also advises all incoming freshmen and is a recruitment officer for Navy and Marines ROTC as well. He’s also completing an online Master of Natural Resources degree through OSU.

ROTC faculty can be fairly isolated from the rest of campus. They exist in their own buildings, have separate advising staff and rotate out every several years. But Burgi said the students benefit from their immersion in both worlds, and that he hopes OSU faculty find ROTC students are showing their leadership and academic dedication in the classroom.

“Hold them to a higher standard,” he said to faculty with ROTC students in their classrooms. “Expect more from them, and if faculty get more, that means we’re doing our job right.”

How ROTC works

ROTC courses count for credit at OSU, and students can apply to receive a minor for their work. Classes are offered to civilians as well. Traditional ROTC students are encouraged to complete their degree in four years, especially those receiving full scholarships.

“We also have active duty students, people that are in the same type of program that I went through,” Burgi said. “For the Navy side, regardless of major, you have three years to get your degree. We have people completing nuclear engineering degrees in three years. It’s pretty difficult. And some of them still come out of here with 3.8, 3.9 GPAs.”

Another group of ROTC students are part of the Meritorious Commissioning program. These students were active duty Marines, often serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, who showed tremendous leadership potential on the field and were essentially given a field promotion. Qualified Marines must already have the equivalent of an associate’s degree to qualify, and when sent to complete their bachelor’s and go through ROTC training, they must complete their work in 18 months.

There has been a decline in ROTC enrollment over the last several years, attributed to a number of reasons. The economy’s improvement has decreased the number of students looking to get their education paid for via military service, and both the Navy and the Marines are limiting the number of scholarships offered to train officers, as the military itself is facing a forced drawdown as military engagement decreases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The projected future need of officers is lower,” Burgi said.

Those students who are selected to participate in ROTC must be prepared for a serious commitment of time and energy.

“We really need our students to be motivated and dedicated. The ones that don’t make it are the ones that can’t adjust,” Burgi said. “We need students to be focused on academics.”

That means being able to balance school and training with any other outside activities, including work and social lives.

“We don’t limit where people live, they can get jobs, they can join fraternities and sororities, but in the end they need good grades and to be focused and open to developing leadership,” Burgi said.

Students who do not receive a scholarship can still go through four years of ROTC and not have to commission. For scholarship recipients, the first year is commitment-free, and after that, if they decide not to accept an appointment as a Navy Ensign or Marine Corps Second Lieutenant, they must return all of their paid tuition.

~ Theresa Hogue

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