As we drive through the gates of the Air Force Academy on a day in early August, Colorado College student Matthew Zelin and I are fortunate enough to see three Air Force jets fly overhead in a perfect V. At my invitation, Zelin has agreed to have a college-life conversation with an academy cadet he's never met. Zelin's been here twice before to play Frisbee, however, and comments on how nice the athletic fields are. They seem to stretch for miles.
"Much better than ours," he laughs.
We've gone through the gates and found ourselves in a mini-military town nestled in front of the mountains. As we learn from Meade Warthen, chief of the academy's Media Relations Division, the Air Force has over 18,500 acres here.
We meet Cadet Matthew Crader outside of Arnold Hall. Warthen and I will spend the next hour and a half in a conference room together, listening, mostly, as Zelin and Crader compare notes.
Crader introduces himself as "C2C Matthew Crader," cadet second class. He gives us the low-down on everything from "cadates" (n., two cadets who are in a relationship), to jump-training (n., an awesome program where cadets get to practice jumping out of planes). He's a junior, a member of the ski club, and is active in the cadet theater club, the Blue Bards. Crader has never had a messy college roommate, because room cleanliness is calculated as part of your military performance average.
Zelin, a film and new media major, is going to be a senior at Colorado College. He deferred his admission a semester to travel in India, but hit the ground running once he got to CC: In addition to Frisbee captain, his undergraduate titles include Radio Station Chief, Ivywild Intern, and CC tour guide. Oh, and after flag football and softball, he's competed in every other intramural sport offered on campus.
The two Matts end up having more similarities: They're engaging, intelligent, over-committed upperclassmen. Who sometimes forget to do laundry until they're out of underwear.
We begin with Crader describing a cadet's progress.
Cadet Crader: I think your four years are really about gaining a lot of privileges. Freshman year is a really stressful environment, you're the bottom of the totem pole, and you answer to pretty much everyone. Then you gain privileges as you go along. For example, you can't have a car here your first two years. So it makes it difficult to go out and to actually go and do stuff in the Springs, so for the first two years you feel really contained. You can borrow upperclassmen's cars if they'll let you ... I actually just got my car so I'm really excited about that.
Student Zelin: It sounds like the most similar theme that we keep mentioning is how both of our schools are based on student leadership, and it's all about students making things happen. In very different ways, a lot of times.
Right now, I'm actually working through the radio station with a bunch of different food coalitions on campus to plan this huge event on campus in the beginning of the school year. At this point it's just us talking, hashing out ideas that we'll eventually take to the student government to get funding for. It's not the school putting on events for students, it's students putting on events for students — kind of like you mentioned about the cadet-run honor program.
And it's very similar in the sense of skills that are being developed, it's just different in the approach. At CC it's extremely open, it's "Oh, do whatever you want and we'll help support you," whereas at the Air Force — I don't want to say "regimented" — it's a little bit more like "If you want to make this happen, here's the way you should try to do things."
Crader: Yeah, exactly. At Colorado College it's a little more free-form: Ideas come out and it's, "OK, let's try doing that." It's more of an — I don't want to say "regimented," either — outlined process here. It's, "OK, I have an idea, let's write some paperwork and try to make this happen."
Zelin: And that's probably the biggest difference, just that you guys have — because it's military-based, there has to be hierarchy. At Colorado College, I'll go to class and probably end up in a class where there's some freshman who's way smarter than everyone else and is leading the class and they'll end up having a great leadership position; and there are tons of first-year students starting clubs and things like that. And I'm sure that's the case here at Air Force as well, but I think there's more of this general hierarchy, whereas at Colorado College everyone's more on a level playing field.
Our classes are usually lecture-based, so if we were a class, the three of us would be sitting around in a circle and the professor would be just helping to facilitate a conversation. It's trying to get rid of the idea of a hierarchy in the classroom ...
Crader: I'm a physics and applied math major, which leans towards the STEM side of academics, but at the academy we have a very wide breadth of classes. They don't want officers that are focused on just one thing — they want a well-rounded group. All colleges have a couple different basics, but I feel like we have more requirements, just to take a wide variety of classes regardless of what you major in. Typically, you don't get to your majors classes, the meat of what you want to study, [until] at the earliest sophomore year.
Zelin: At CC, you get eight classes your first year. Most students take those classes in six different departments, and then sophomore year you're expected to narrow it down a bit. But I've taken tons of English classes, [classes] in the theater and math departments, physics, philosophy, poli-sci, history. I've been in film classes where there'll be eight film majors in the class and the other people are all across the spectrum. So it adds this whole new perspective, because you don't know what class they took last ... it creates a much more well-rounded classroom feel.
I don't know the class size or size of the student body at the Air Force, but maybe it works the same way.
Crader: There's 4,000 cadets, so each class is about 1,000.
Zelin: Yeah, that's about twice the size of CC.
Crader: Our classes are pretty small. Typically, a basic credit/core class, you'll have, like, 20 students. As you go into your majors classes, there's fewer and fewer students. Maybe only five, or even less in some classes. ...
On the whole, it's a very small class size compared to some big universities. And this definitely fosters more class discussion, similar to Colorado College. Student-teacher interaction at big universities: You don't even know your professor. Here, your professor is the one teaching you — and they're available all the time for you to go in and get extra instruction, or to read the essay you wrote and get some revisions. There's a lot of help available all over the place at the academy that helps develop you academically.
And coming in here, a lot of cadets were valedictorians, top of their class in high school. And then they come here and it's like, they're average. Their high school course load, even if they took all AP classes ... coming here is a shock to your system. It humbles you a little bit to where you say, "OK, I actually need to go in for help" — whereas in high school you could just coast by.
Zelin: Can we just acknowledge that our schools are the exact same? With the exception of the size and the fact that your school is a military institution. You guys fly planes, we go climb and stuff. Seems to be the only difference.
Crader: And we have a climbing team, so we definitely like doing all the same things. And with all the extracurricular things, and besides the military aspect, the academy has a lot of things in common with a normal college.
Indy: What about dating culture?
Crader: We have a funny term for cadets dating each other. It's called a "cadate." Nice play on words there. But it's not unheard of at all for two cadets to date each other and get married after their time at the academy. The chapel, every June and July, it's booked solid with lieutenant weddings that go on right after graduation.
Obviously, the ratio [of] 4-to-1 male-to-female makes things difficult. The guys have to work a lot harder — I don't know how to put this, but the girls obviously have a wide variety of males to choose from. The guys have to compete a little bit, I guess, but we're not totally restricted ... once you're in your upperclass years, you can get off campus and meet plenty of other people.
Zelin: I actually have a friend who's dating an Air Force cadet.
Crader: Yep. Cadets date each other, and I know plenty of officers that have told me they've met their wife or their husband from going to school in Denver or from somewhere else in the area.
Indy: What are you most looking forward to in the rest of your college careers, and where do you hope to go afterward?
Zelin: I'm going into my senior year, so ... for one, gotta finish. That's Number One. Two, finding a job.
But I'm also really interested [in] exploring other options besides going directly into following a career path; really interested in potentially pursuing a world visa, and then you can travel really fast for a year and work somewhere else and see the world. There probably aren't too many more opportunities for that besides right after college. Hard to do it in the middle of trying to formulate a career, but maybe during my future mid-life crisis, I could do it then.
Crader: This is my last two years here, looking forward to graduation, but one thing in particular is next summer when I'll have the opportunity to work base cadet training. I helped run basic military training down in Lackland [the Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas] this past summer. And then for senior year, finalize academics, then pilot training.
Once you graduate you get 60 days, and that's basically the cadet's time to go wild and see the world before they start their job. They get that once-in-a-lifetime journey and then they come back here and go to pilot training, start their assigned job ... hopefully for me it's pilot training. I don't know when I would start that because they have staggered starts, but they'll have classes of pilot training, and if you don't get in the first one you just start a little later.
Hopefully five years from now I'll be flying fighter jets — the really maneuverable fast ones. You know, pull a lot of Gs, go really fast ...
Zelin: I wanted to ask: I saw there was a bar and I wasn't sure what the Air Force's policy was on alcohol.
Crader: Cadets can't have alcohol at all in the dormitories; that includes their cars or anywhere in the cadet area. The only place that cadets can get alcohol that close to the dorm is that bar. And really, the purpose of Hap's — that's the name of the bar — is so that they can give cadets a place to drink safely. Because obviously, some cadets are 21 years old and they're going to go out and drink downtown; and it gives them an outlet where they're much closer to home and they don't have to worry about driving. ... And not only do you have to be 21, you also have to be a two-degree or one-degree cadet, so a junior or a senior.
Zelin: We used to have what we called the 9th Block, which was essentially the on-campus bar. But it closed and the property turned into something else; but Colorado College does so much on campus as far as offering lectures, film screenings, dances, you name it.
So much happens on campus, so there's always this discussion of what students refer to as the "CC bubble," because it's hard for us to engage in the community when there's so much happening on campus. We feel like there's so much happening that we don't find ourselves downtown or in the greater community interacting with people.
I kind of feel like I see that here — obviously you do literally see it, when you drive in and there's the gate. And obviously there's restrictions in coming and going through that gate, and I understand why those exist. ... Having a bar on campus makes a lot of sense for student safety. My wish would be that there would be more interaction. And just in this hour that we've been sitting here, I think there are so many positives to sitting down and having a conversation. Our schools are very similar, and there would probably be a lot of benefits from collaboration between students.
There are three [major] schools here. But it feels like there's one to me, Colorado College. At least as far as my interaction goes with [the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs] and the Air Force.
Crader: Exactly. Not as much interaction between the three as maybe one would desire, but it kind of comes down to, hey, you're going to school with these people, you see these people all day, you're friends with these people, and so there's not as much a desire to go out and find other people to hang out with.
Zelin: It's easy.
Crader: It's easy to just hang out with who you know.