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TranscriptOn Monday, September 17, 2018, Militaryschooler contributor Andrew Erickson interviewed Major General Walt Lord US Army Retired, President of Valley Forge Military Academy and College. The following is a transcript of the interview:
Walt Lord: For us, the cadet experience is delivered via 5 cornerstones of a Valley Forge education. Academic Excellence, Physical Development, Personal Motivation, Character Development, and Leadership. And the leadership piece is a common thread throughout everything else we do here at this school. And I think what makes us different and what makes any military school different is the fact that our boarding program includes that leadership piece.
Andrew Erickson: Welcome to the Militaryschooler podcast, where we bring you inside these unique schools and help to tell their stories. This is the third episode of our Head of Schools series. Today we are joined by Major General Walt Lord from Valley Forge Military Academy and College. Along with being the President of the Academy, General Lord is also an alumnus and was once a plebe and then a cadet leader at his fine school.
AE: Can you briefly describe Valley Forge Military Academy and College?
WL: Absolutely. We are a very unique institution in that we are both an academy and a college, and when we refer to our academy we refer to a middle school and high school. So, 7th and 8th grade, full high school and then the college. So, we're actually three academic institutions under one umbrella. That gives us a few advantages, the most important of which is a change that we are making now in our academy, our high school. We've got a new Dean of our academy, Dr. Paul Lea, who is a graduate of both our high school and our college. So he remembers what Valley Forge use to be like. He's also a career academic. He comes to us out of the North Virginia Community College system where he was a Dean within their structure. One of the things that Paul has asked, in looking with a fresh set of eyes at Valley Forge, is why do we offer AP courses, Advanced Placement courses. And the answer that we all reflexingly gave was because we are a school and we're supposed to do that. And again with that fresh set of eyes, which I love, he asked the question, "Why do we ask a cadet to take an AP course, later ask mom and dad to pay for a test to validate that course, and then later hope that a college will accept the credits if the cadet performs well enough on that test?" When on the other hand what we could do, what we will now do thanks to Paul's great input, is when we have an advanced cadet in our high school, we'll walk him up college hill to take college classes at the college that we have right here on our own campus and then there's no question. They've got a certified college transcript when they move from high school to college. So the fact that we do have all three levels of institutions under one roof really gives us some great advantages.
AE: So with all these levels what kind of students attend your academy and your college? And what are cadets looking for that they find here that they do not find at home?
WL: I think the cadet that comes here to Valley Forge and the parents who send the cadet to Valley Forge, or really any other military school, I think, are looking for a higher level of excellence. I think there is a misperception that you send a student to a military school when they've got problems -- either disciplinary problems or academic problems -- and a military school is a place they're going to go to fix those problems. For some of our cadets that's absolutely true and we are a school that believes in helping underperforming students get better or students with disciplinary problems learn to be good, respectful students. But, I think when we look strictly at that small population we ignore a larger population of cadets who do well in other schools: they're good athletes, they're good students, they're good young people, but they want to get better too. So they want to heighten their level of excellence from really good to really excellent. So I think the type of student who comes here and the type of parent that send their young man (or in the college, young woman) here are looking for that step up on performance whether it's from underachiever to achiever or achiever to super achiever.
AE: So this is your first year back at your alma mater. What are your big plans for the school?
WL: My two biggest plans, and the first one will be no surprise to anyone who has served the head of a school, and that is to ensure we are on firm financial ground moving forward. Sadly, too many military schools have closed over the years and the root cause has been they just haven't been able to generate revenue. So as president of Valley Forge I want to make sure that I'm out there spreading the word about who we are and what we do and why we are a good investment for benefactors who want to invest in successful young people. And my second big goal, and it contributes to the first, is to heighten our enrollment. Today I've got 636 bed spaces in our barracks, in our dorms. We have 530 cadets on the grounds, so I've got room for growth. We've got one barracks building, Wheeler Hall, which is a centerpiece on our campus, named after the first cadet enrolled at Valley Forge in 1928, Wheeler. Right now it's vacant because it requires significant refurbishment. When we do that I'll have 750 bed spaces, so room for considerable growth. Now the good news is we've already started to achieve that goal. On May 24th of the last school year when the corps of cadets departed we had 444 cadets in our corps. Today we have 530 and that's even after a little bit of attrition, so coming in the door we were even higher. We've had some attrition at the college level, but the good news is that the academy, at the high school and middle school, attrition has been near zero and that's after three and a half weeks of really challenging plebe training, when cadets have their most difficult adjustment issues. So I'm really confident that we are going to start to achieve that enrollment goal very, very quickly. Ultimately, I plan to be a school with a waiting list; 750 beds, 750 cadets and a waiting list because people will find out about us, about how successful we are and they'll want to send their sons and daughters here.
"Our son has just finished the plebe system this fall (2018) at VFMA and I can absolutely vouch for what changes MG Lord and his leadership team have accomplished in a short time. The transformation in our son both in his maturity as well as his academics is unbelievable in less than 90 days."
AE: So, with enrollment, what's the biggest challenge of growing the Corps?
WL: Biggest challenge is helping people find us. Recruiters, enrollment officers, admissions counselors, depending on what you call them at any given school, they will tell you that they've got to go out and find their target audience, find the type of student who needs to come to a school like ours, or parents that want to send their children to schools like ours. I reverse that outlook and I say we don't have to find them, we have to help them find us. Because when people do find us, and we help make their students more successful, they become the best salesmen we've got. They start to send the referrals to us because they've had a great experience. So as we continue to improve our product here at Valley Forge and continue to help people find us I'm convinced that our enrollment will increase very quickly.
AE: Now as a school I'm sure you have some unique classes and programs academically for the students, but you're also a boarding school and you're a boarding military school. Can you speak about some of the unique programs that that brings?
WL: Absolutely. The biggest one that I talk about is the cadet experience. So when I talk about our product and the fact that we made some pretty bold moves in the past three or four months to improve our product, I've got to explain to people I'm not talking about our cadets. I wouldn't dehumanize someone that way. In my mind our product is a combination of a first class education and the cadet experience. For us the cadet experience is delivered via 5 cornerstones of a Valley Forge education: Academic Excellence, Physical Development, Personal Motivation, Character Development, and Leadership. And the leadership piece is a common thread throughout everything else we do here at this school. And I think what makes us different and what makes any military school different is the fact that our boarding program includes that leadership piece. So that when a cadet is with us for two, or three, or four years, they rise in the ranks of cadet leadership. And here at Valley Forge we are truly a cadet led corps. So when we appoint a young cadet senior, high school senior, as a cadet captain and say, "You are now the commander of B Company with 70 cadets," he truly is leading that company from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night. And they learn the leadership skills required, not only to be a leader, but to be a leader in what can be one of the most challenging forum to lead and that is peer leadership. They're leading fellow high school cadets and that can be really challenging, but they learn a lot from that.
AE: So, I'd like to switch gears since you're also an alumnus, not just the Head of the school. I think you must have a special appreciation and understanding of the cadets and all they go through and how they grow, so let's talk about them for a little bit. Can you tell us about some of the recent graduates and successes they're having?
WL: Absolutely. I think one of the most successful fairly recent graduates is a young man named Wes Moore, who came here from inner city Baltimore. He graduated as our Cadet Regimental Commander. When he did graduate he went on to be a Rhodes Scholar and he found out about another young man named Wes Moore from his neighborhood in inner city Baltimore. Only this Wes Moore's life took a completely different track. He went down the wrong path in life and was serving a significant sentence in a penitentiary. Wes Moore found out about that and went and formed a bond with that young man and talked about the differences in the way their lives had started to pan out and why they had panned out differently. And Wes Moore very confidently stated that the reason his life went in that very positive direction, coming from the same neighborhood, from the same environment, was that he came to a military school. He came to Valley Forge. And frankly, I think that's the best advertisement you can have. A young man like that who very well might have headed down a wrong path in life, but his path was diverted because he came to a military school.
AE: You talked about the five cornerstones that the cadets grow up in and obviously academics and athletics everyone's familiar with. It's a military school, leadership is obviously a big deal because students live it every day, and a lot of schools talk about character and how they develop it. How does Valley Forge specifically work on its students' character?
WL: Well first and foremost we've got a formal program for character development. Typically two Sundays per month we have what's called a "closed weekend" here at Valley Forge. And obviously that'll vary based on holiday schedules, but during those two closed weekends one of the mandatory activities that every cadet attends is chapel service. It's a Christian-based service, but frankly it has a lot more to do with character development than religion. We bring in guest speakers who are very successful people from all walks of life: military people, business people, government leaders. And they talk about what they did as young people in order to be successful. So that's a component of our character development. On the weekends that we don't have a closed weekend; the reason we call them open and closed is, cadets in good standing who live close enough can go home on an open weekend; but when they return to campus on Monday afternoon after academic classes end, they're in chapel. So they didn't have a chapel service Sunday, but they're all together in chapel, mandatory, 100 percent attendance for about an hour. And we do the same thing without the religious-based service. It's basically an hour of a very successful motivational speaker coming in to talk with the cadets. We ask that they only talk for ten or fifteen minutes about their experience and what made them successful and then they open it up for questions for the cadets. And those are just magical to watch because cadets will ask some pretty poignant questions of successful people, and ask how they can get to where that person has gotten in life. And then there are other pieces within our cadet experience that contribute to the character development like our Honor Code.
"Those are just magical to watch because cadets will ask some pretty poignant questions of successful people, and ask how they can get to where that person has gotten in life."Our Honor Code is one of our capshield requirements. It is a very simple code that our cadets are required to memorize and that is: A cadet will not lie, steal, or cheat or tolerate those who do. So we teach those three very important characteristics of honor to our cadets, but we also tell them that part of being honorable is not tolerating dishonorable acts among your peers. And that can be the most difficult thing for a cadet to do. Last weekend we did have our first chapel service and I had the honor of being the guest speaker, and the theme was honor. And I talked about the Honor Code. And I talked specifically about the requirement to not tolerate dishonorable acts. And I shared with the cadets my philosophy that you may feel that when you know that one of your cadets has violated the honor code -- on of your peers -- you may feel a sense of torn loyalty, loyalty between your friend and between the institution and what we stand for. And one of the things I shared with the cadets, especially the new cadets because they're still grappling with this Honor Code thing that they're now introduced to, is if one of your peers commits a dishonorable act and they know that you know that, and they expect you not to report them, they are actually being disloyal to you. So your choice between loyalty to the institution and loyalty to a friend, who is in essence being disloyal to you, should be a no-brainer. Because loyalty is a two way street. And you should be able to talk to that peer and say, "Look, I know you've done this. Why don't you report this, ask for leniency and things will probably turn out better than if you force me to report it." So the character development sessions in chapel, the special character development sessions that we have on Mondays, the Honor Code, and everything we do here throughout the day really contribute in full to the character development piece of our five cornerstones.
AE: In our last podcast episode we talked a little bit about the ability to fail. And part of growing into being a person, being an adult, is making mistakes. What was a mistake that you made here as a cadet and how did you recover from it, and how did you learn from it?
WL: Well, I've had to think about that often. I had a very successful career here as a cadet, two years in the college. I was here for the early commissioning program so I was here to become an Army Lieutenant. So I not only had the cadet leadership mentoring, I also had Army leadership mentoring. I took to it really well. I jumped into the system here with both feet. But, I suppose I can recall a mistake that I made. In my second year I was a cadet platoon leader, so the third floor of Lafayette Hall was mine. That was my domain. That was where my platoon lived, and that was where I supervised a platoon of 40 or so of my fellow cadets. And at one point our Company Commander and I had a disagreement about how strict we should be with room inspections. And I was probably a little bit over the top in my standard. And I was a little less lenient for infractions in room neatness than I probably should have been. And I conducted an inspection where I just started tearing things apart in cadet rooms. At the time I thought that I was enforcing a really tough standard, and that the cadets were going to learn from that and that it was going to be a good thing. My cadet Company Commander, who was a little older, a couple years older, and a little more mature than I was, pulled me aside. I still didn't agree with him at that point. It took me a few years of reflection to learn that he was right and I was wrong and that my standard was probably a little over the top and that frankly I wasn't being courteous and respectful to the cadets I was chosen to lead. So to this day, I regret that. It was a mistake I made and thank God I was able to reflect on it later and overcome it and become a more courteous, respectful leader to those I lead.
"Mom and dad are going to look at you with a look of pride that you've never seen before, because they're seeing you stand taller and prouder because you've succeeded"
AE: What would you tell a parent who is thinking about a military high school?
WL: I think what I would tell any parent who is considering a military school is, first, you're going to find an environment where, as I mentioned earlier, your son or daughter is going to be placed in a position to get better. Whether they've got specific areas in which they need improvement that you may have helped them identify: academics or discipline or just being a courteous, respectful human being. If they need to work on one of those areas they are going to get better at those at a military school. But I would also encourage parents who have polite, courteous, respectful young men and ladies, who are good students and good athletes, and headed on the right path in life to also consider a military school, because they're going to get even better at those things. The structure that you have at a military school, the discipline, the leadership and first the followership, because in order to be a good leader you have to be a good follower. The mentorship, the role models that they're going to find at military schools are going to make their sons and daughters better at everything they do, even when they're already good at those things.
AE: One of the fun parts about working at these schools is working with the cadets. I'd say that's probably the most fun part of working at these schools is working with the cadets. And having that experience where you were one of them I'm sure you can kind of see their thoughts a little better than most. What kind of advice would you give a student who is two weeks from enrolling in Valley Forge to prepare?
WL: I would tell them to be ready to just gut it out, because I think all of our military schools have very similar systems for new cadets. They vary somewhat from school to school obviously, but I think there are a lot of common threads. And what I tell brand new cadets is that this is a gut check. Whatever your new cadets are called at the start of an experience at your military school -- here we call them plebes, like many schools do. Plebe system, plebe training that lasts about 30 days here at Valley Forge, is a gut check. We're going to test you physically, we're going to test you academically, but really those physical and academic tests are more mental and emotional. Because we're testing your ability to deal with those things. So it's a gut check for you individually and if you just gut it out you are going to get through this thing called Plebe System successfully, but you're also going to learn that you are going to bond with your fellow plebes. And you're going to gut it out together and through teamwork you're going to make it through this thing called Plebe Training. And at the end of it you're going to stand a little taller, a little prouder, knowing that you've gotten through it. And more importantly, mom and dad are going to look at you with a look of pride that you've never seen before, because they're seeing you stand taller and prouder because you've succeeded.
AE: Well sir, thank you very much for being on our podcast and more importantly, much more importantly, thank you for doing all the great things you do for your students and cadets.
WL: Absolutely my pleasure.