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Bemidji students win record number of ROTC scholarships

Among the 368 Bemidji High School graduates who will accept their diplomas and toss their caps this morning are six scholarship winners who have carved a historic mark for their school.

Alex Benner, Alex Cecena, Jessica Grosfield, Matthew Schnell, Jake Sorby and John Thompson each earned full-ride JROTC scholarships. BHS is the only high school among the 1,400 JROTC programs nationwide to net that many ROTC scholarships.

Grosfield will enter the College of St. Benedict's in Collegeville in the fall, Thompson and Schnell will enter St. John's University in Collegeville, and Benner, Cecena and Sorby will enter St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud. As they continue their ROTC program, they will all be members of the Fighting Saints Battalion.

Although these six graduates made history for BHS, Sgt. First Class Michael Wasnuk, BHS Junior ROTC instructor, said all 25 JROTC graduates are accomplished, confident student-citizens with strong leadership skills. He said 72 percent of the JROTC grads will go on to further their education. Altogether, he said there are 213 students in the program. He teaches the course with Lt. Col, Douglas Trenda. Both teachers are retired Army veterans.

"I joined because I always had an interest in the military," said Benner, who plans to major in history education. "That's what I wanted to do since middle school."

"It was something different I didn't know a lot about," said Grosfield. "It's a good leadership class."

She plans to major in nursing.

"I joined the class as something different," said Cecena. "I heard about it in eighth grade. I really wanted to be in the class." Cecena said he also is thinking about a nursing career.

"When I was in eighth grade, they came over to the middle school," said Schnell. "I liked the uniforms, and I liked the instructor."

"I think we're a lot closer as friends in this class than in other classes," said Thompson.

Benner agreed, saying, "Me, John and Jake have been hanging out together. We called ourselves the Three Amigos. With all the stuff you do, you get closer together."

Thompson plans on a business management major, then law enforcement after he finishes his military obligations. Sorby plans to major in civil engineering. Schnell plans a double major of political science and history with an eye toward a possible political career.

Wasnuk said JROTC is an elective that fits well with the rest of the BHS curriculum, but with more community service activities.

"We believe that to lead, you have to be able to serve," he said. "This program opens up the opportunities for these young men and women to serve their community."

He said they have raised money for families at Christmas, sponsored blood drives, provided highway cleanups and helped at the American Legion, among other projects. They also get together in the summer for camping trips, bicycle rallies and other activities.

"Inside the classroom, they learn leadership; they absolutely love the concept of self-discipline," Wasnuk said. "Our class is based on military values of leadership. We don't teach military tactics. We're not a recruiting tool."

"We just did a survey among students," said Trenda. "The students think the program is unique. They use words like 'family.'"

Wasnuk said the class is more diverse than most, with students of different ages ranging from academically gifted to those who need rehabilitation services.

"We have the whole spectrum of kids," he said. "They meet kids they wouldn't otherwise."

Wasnuk has been with the BHS JROTC since the program started in 2003, and Trenda joined the project last winter.

"It's definitely enhanced the program by having a field officer in the program," Wasnuk said.

The students estimated that the class carries a 70-30 percent boy-girl ratio. Grosfield said she fits in well with her male colleagues because all the students realize they have to work together.

"Another reason a lot of us joined the class is there is a lot of hands-on activities," said Thompson. "Other classes, you just sit around. This class, you work with other people."

To win the scholarships, the students had to make applications, write essays and go through an interview process.

BHS Principal Richard Anderson said that when he heard about the JROTC program, he thought it would be a good fit for Bemidji. He said he and former Assistant Principal Doug Henry went to Grand Rapids to see how that program worked and initiated JROTC here the next year.

"The emphasis was on leadership and on being a good citizen," Anderson said. "We thought those were two worthy goals we wanted to hype here."

He said the program is paid for in part by ROTC. Students wear uniforms one day a week, but they are issued their uniforms by the program. When they graduate, the uniforms are made ready for the next incoming JROTC students.

Anderson said graduation is an exciting and happy time for him.

"It also humbles me to what the students can achieve when they apply themselves," he said.

As the seniors joked with Wasnuk on their last day of class Friday, Grosfield told Wasnuk he would have to salute her when she graduated from St. Ben's with a captain's rank.

"I'll do it proudly," he said.