Stories of Impact

Smith ’23:
Humbled to Lead

Blake Smith ’23


Blake Smith ’23 came to VMI seeking a challenge, preparation for life as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and leadership experience that simply isn’t found at other colleges and universities.

Now, from his vantage point as regimental commander, the highest leadership position within the Corps of Cadets, Smith says he found what he was looking for—and much more. After all, he’s seen the Corps navigate the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, a change in Institute leadership, and the onset of widespread public scrutiny, all in the past four years. As an insider, Smith knows that while some things will change over time, the essence of what makes VMI what it is has not and will not change.

“There’s three things that really make VMI the toughest and the strongest school in the country,” said Smith, an economics and business major from Crozier, Virginia. “There’s the Honor Code, [VMI] being student-led, and having the toughest orientation system within any college in the country. … And it’s the reason our diploma carries as much weight as it does.”

Smith attended Benedictine College Prep, a private high school in Richmond, Virginia, and it was there that he first felt a calling to the Marine Corps. Drawn by VMI’s reputation for producing officers, he attended an open house and immediately knew the Institute would be his perfect fit.

“I saw the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the brother rat spirit,” said Smith of his first impressions of VMI. “And I saw that it was different than any other college in the country.”

As a rat, Smith was fortunate to have Justin Polito ’20 as his dyke. Like Smith, Polito had attended Benedictine—and when Polito heard that Smith was interested in VMI, he reached out to the potential rat. Via text, Polito encouraged Smith to choose the Institute and offered to be his dyke.

That summer, the two met in person at a local restaurant for lunch—and a lifetime friendship began when they showed up driving the same truck, even down to the same color. After that lunch, Polito and Smith began to work out together, and at matriculation, Smith found himself assigned to Company E, where Polito was company commander.

“He’s a big role model that enabled me to want to stay at VMI and also pursue higher-level leadership,” Smith commented. “I learned a significant amount of leadership qualities from him, and I’m trying to mold myself to be a lot like him.”

"We’re giving you the tools necessary for you to be an effective officer and also a leader within the Commonwealth of Virginia and even the country. That’s why VMI produces some of the best leaders in the country."

Blake Smith ’23 Regimental Commander

After serving as a cadre corporal his 3rd Class year—a year when COVID-19 seriously impacted cadet life—Smith began to ponder his leadership options for 2nd Class year, and that’s when he realized that his leadership could make a difference.

“I saw, overall, a lot of people kind of getting down about the Institute, but I never lost my love and passion for it,” he stated. “I decided to apply for regimental sergeant major because I felt like it had the most amount of influence on people, where I could ensure that people still had that same love and passion for the Institute as I do.”

Stepping into the role of regimental sergeant major, Smith felt that the role was tailor-made for him.

“I just love being in front of people and talking to people and being able to communicate with people,” he explained. “And that’s what ultimately led me to want to be the regimental commander. It has nothing to do with the elite status of being regimental commander. I don’t care about that. I really care about the school, the well-being of the school, and my BRs. … That’s why I wanted to be regimental commander, so I could effectively be their voice and be their liaison throughout the entire year.”

Hearing his name announced as regimental commander in Memorial Hall in the spring was “truly humbling,” Smith noted. “There have been points in time where I felt like I was never even going to even make it to college and thinking that I even made it to VMI—I’m just extraordinarily blessed.”

As he prepares to enter the Marine Corps, Smith is grateful for all that VMI has given him—and especially thankful for the Honor Code, VMI’s bulwark, which has guided cadet conduct since the Institute’s inception.

“The honor court that is currently in right now is some of the most professional individuals and some of the finest young men and women that I’ve ever met in my life,” he commented. “They are truly the definition of what living honorably means, and the system of the honor court is strong and alive and well.”

As regimental commander, Smith is eager to share the good news of VMI with the wider world—and to let people, especially prospective cadets, know that VMI’s system works, just as it has for more than 180 years.

“The purpose of the Rat Line, the purpose of VMI—we’re giving you the tools necessary for you to be an effective officer and also a leader within the Commonwealth of Virginia and even the country,” Smith stated. “That’s why VMI produces some of the best leaders in the country … and we’re building you from a high school student to a VMI graduate within four years.”

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