Mentoring the officers of tomorrow

Lt. Col. Lisa Undem, Air Force ROTC (photo: Theresa Hogue)

For most of her adult life, Lisa Undem has been passionate about mentoring and teaching. But during her third year of college in North Dakota, she realized her pursuit of a degree in math education wasn’t quite the right fit, and she began to consider a career in the military. Valley City State University didn’t offer an ROTC program, so she traveled to North Dakota State University to ask questions of their ROTC recruiters. The Air Force ROTC program felt like a good match, so Undem transferred and joined the program.

After training, her first assignment was at Hurlburt Field, Fla., where she tested new command and control equipment. “It was an interesting place for a brand new lieutenant,” she said.

Undem is now a lieutenant colonel serving as commander of the OSU Air Force ROTC detachment, as well as a professor of Aerospace Studies, teaching 400 level courses to ROTC seniors.

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.

“It’s a lot of hats,” she said. “Part of it is instructing and mentoring and part of it is the normal command duties.”

It’s a position that’s well suited to Undem’s interests.

“Initially when I went to college I wanted to teach and coach, and now I’m teaching. I want to keep teaching and mentoring,” she said. “I really enjoy doing that for people, giving them the tools they need, not just for the Air Force, but in life, and then watching them go and do great things.”

Since her students are preparing for careers as officers in the military, Undem emphasizes not only the curriculum the Air Force provides, but also a glimpse into the world of military service.

“I try to add as much as I can from personal experience. Not only does it make a lesson more interesting but it provides real world examples,” she said. “I also have extra sessions in the spring for those getting ready to commission. They focus a lot more on ‘This is what to expect on active duty, especially your first assignment.’”

She also wants to make sure her students understand the depth of what they’re committing to, and that their military career may take them to places that are far out of their comfort zone.

“Being in the military is not a nine-to-five job, it’s a commitment,” she said, “and Corvallis is not like everywhere else. (In other places) you have to be alert as far as safety and security. Whenever I can I try to throw in something that I’ve experienced, just so they’re ready.”

When recruiting students for Air Force ROTC, Undem is looking for students with leadership skills, the ability to follow, a strong sense of discipline and a hard work ethic. While all those things are reinforced within the program, they’re looking for students who at their core are already officer material. The Air Force in particular also looks for students with technical majors, especially in the field of engineering.

The traits nurtured in ROTC students translate to their other academic work. In every class, students must give some kind of briefing in front of the class, even those in their first year. They also learn to work with others, and the skill of time management.”

Even the military’s emphasis on physical fitness can lead to better academic success, Undem said.  “You get that stress reliever and clear mind and then you can study and pay attention better.”

Undem believes that having ROTC programs at land grant universities supports the military’s goal of representing the nation’s demographics as a whole.

“What’s important for the Air Force and every branch of the service is to have a good cross section of the nation as part of its service,” she said. “My understanding is that the land grant is that state’s university. They get a big piece of the cross-section, and that’s a good way to meet the Air Force’s needs.”

Undem knows that the military is not for everyone, but she encourages students who have a strong passion for leadership and a dedication to hard work and integrity, to consider ROTC.

“I tell new students that they’re not all going to finish, but no matter what the reason is that they don’t, I want them to get something out of it, whether they learn something about themselves, or leadership skills, time management, fitness, discipline, or just an appreciation for the military, I just want it to be a positive experience,” she said. “It’s not for everybody, but as long as they learn something from it that’s what matters to me.

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