Jessica Fields got off to a rocky start her freshman year. She wasn’t meeting the right friends. Her grades were bad. Something was missing.

Four years later, the Illinois State University senior is thriving. Fields is the highest-ranking cadet in Illinois State’s ROTC program, and she was recently picked to be her college’s lone student speaker at commencement on May 7. Fields credits ROTC with developing her leadership skills and confidence.

Jessica Fields fills canteen

Illinois State ROTC cadet Jessica Fields, right, is a senior human development major.

“It’s amazing the skills ROTC offers that you can’t get anywhere else,” Fields said.

Fields is one of many success stories being celebrated this year as Illinois State’s ROTC program marks its 35th anniversary on campus. The Army officer training program will welcome back many of its 400-plus alumni at a special 35th anniversary dinner Thursday, May 5, at Hancock Stadium Club.

There are 101 cadets currently in the Redbird Battalion. They’re perhaps most visible to the public during their early morning workouts, but the real cadet experience runs much deeper.

And as the U.S. Army ROTC celebrates its 100th anniversary nationwide, members of the Redbird Battalion say they appreciate the strong relationship between Illinois State and its ROTC program. The University is regularly recognized as one of the most military-friendly schools in the U.S.

ROTC cadets pose outside Hovey Hall in 1992

Illinois State’s ROTC cadets pose outside Hovey Hall in 1992. (Photo from the Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives)

“We’re fortunate to be on a campus that’s so supportive,” said David Sanford ’09, ISU’s ROTC recruiting officer and an Iraq war veteran. “That’s not the case for every program across the country.”

Among the many changes to ROTC since 1981 are the partnerships with Illinois Wesleyan and Bradley universities. Today’s 101-cadet battalion includes 12 from Bradley and four from IWU.

There are also more female cadets today than in decades past. Fields is one of 31 female cadets now at ISU. (Her sister, Army officer Elizabeth Fields ’08, is the one who recommended she try ROTC.)

Related Article

Q&A with Jessica

ROTC is just one part of Cadet Fields' student experience at Illinois State.

See Related Content

One of the biggest changes is ROTC’s increased community engagement, particularly in the last few years, said Sanford. Cadets are highly visible as Color Guard during the Homecoming parade, or as participants in Bloomington-Normal fundraisers such as Polar Plunge, Relay for Life, and the We Care half-marathon.

That raises the program’s profile locally, while also integrating cadets into their campus community.

“All that is 100 percent cadet-driven,” Sanford said. “They’re part of both communities.”

Jessica Fields hands something to man

Senior Jessica Fields, right, is the highest-ranking cadet in Illinois State’s ROTC program.

Fields previously led ROTC’s Cadets Helping Kids school tutoring program, a natural fit for the human development major. She’ll graduate May 7 and then plans to complete four years of active-duty service.

After that, the Downers Grove native hopes to attend graduate school and become a child life specialist, helping parents and their kids during hospital stays. Fields says her leadership role within ROTC has shown her how to work effectively with all different types of people.

“That’ll translate really well into the civilian world,” Fields said.

Sometimes ROTC’s lessons in leadership can jolt a cadet. Robert Lemmon ’11, an ISU instructor who teaches military science courses for freshmen, still remembers catching flak from one of his ROTC commanding officers for ignoring an order to wait for his fellow cadets at the end of a long run.

“It was a big lesson for me to look out for your fellow soldiers first,” said Lemmon.

Illinois State’s ROTC 35th anniversary celebration begins with a cocktail reception at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 5, followed by dinner at 6 p.m. Retired Lt. Col. Tim O’Neil ’84 will deliver the keynote address.

Fields will be the featured student speaker. It’ll be the first part of a busy week for Fields; her ROTC commissioning ceremony is the next day, followed by commencement two days later.

Learn more and RSVP at

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ryan Denham can be reached at