Graduation is a time of new beginnings. For those that have the honor of bearing the title of cadet at the the United States Military Academy at West Point, however, it means commission and assignment to an occupation in the Army.
For one particular member of the class of 2023, graduation marks an occasion of both momentous joy and excitement about the future, but also profound reflection about the things he wishes he’d known when he began Plebe year — a West Point cadet’s first year at the academy.
As such, Spencer Gillis penned a heartfelt letter to his younger self, which ultimately holds a lot of advice for future service academy attendees.
“West Point is not what you think it is,” Gillis opens. “The vision you have of what it means to be a cadet, and what it means to be an officer, are incorrect. You are painfully naïve as to what the daily life of a cadet looks like. You will more often be unprepared than you will be prepared, and confidence will quickly become a valuable commodity. At this point in your life, you are probably thinking you ‘know’ a lot...”
He goes on to state, essentially, that no one in their first year knows much of anything. Attending West Point is as much a re-education as it is an academic experience.
What each graduate gets out of attendance at this storied institution, Gillis posits, is not a book of military stratagems or a leg up in the Army. Ultimately, like with any battalion or platoon, you benefit primarily from building relationships with a team that shares common goals.
“As graduation gets closer, you will recognize that none of the coursework you completed, shots you took, or formations you had matter at all,” he adds. “The greatest leadership lessons will be learned from those around you, and you will love and cherish them for the rest of your life. To be blunt, you will be nothing without these relationships. Everything else pales in comparison.”
He also waxes, as does Vitamin C — the musical group that sang about graduation in 2000 — about the passage of time and how funny it is the things you remember when school ends.
“Although you’ll be very excited for what’s next, you’ll recognize that as you had been hoping all along, time has in fact passed and despite your best efforts it will only continue to do so,” Gillis says. “In fact, by the time graduation comes around, you will find that you are not as ready to leave as you thought, and when you do, you might actually look back.”
And while all that may seem cliché, what Gillis says in closing may come as a shock to the academically rigorous students that typically apply and are granted acceptance into the highly-ranked military academies.
“If there’s one thing I hope you’d do differently, it’s spend less time caring about school.”
While it may be too late for those graduating this year, these lessons are certainly valuable reading for anyone thinking of applying to a service academy. But for all those departing and commissioning, consider these words from Vitamin C:
As we go on, we remember
All the times we had together
And as our lives change, come whatever
We will still be friends forever
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.