Two British exchange students are enrolled at VMI this fall – and both spent the first month of the semester adjusting not only to one of the hottest Virginia Septembers in recent memory, but also to the VMI way of doing things.
Sam Berry, a fusilier, or private, in the Royal Welsh Army, a regiment of the British Army, and his longtime friend Oliver Flack, an officer cadet who will also enter the British Army, came to VMI from the University of Salford, Manchester, U.K.
Both Berry and Flack are enrolled in the University Officers Training Course, which is the British equivalent of ROTC. Salford has no military affiliation, so Berry and Flack take their UOTC training at a military barracks site away from the university.
“You have university life and you have military life, and they’re kind of separate,” explained Flack. Coming to VMI, he noted, was a way for him and Berry to integrate the military and academic portions of their lives.
“Since we’re both at a civilian college or university, it kind of made sense to come to a more military-focused environment,” explained Flack. “You can work on some skills while studying.”
For his part, Berry noted that the British Army expects its officers to be “cultured, well-rounded people” and that with this goal in mind, travel is encouraged.
While at VMI, both are training with the Army ROTC, and both have found the transition rather seamless.
“It just seems like I fit,” noted Berry. “It seems like back home.” This summer, before arriving at VMI, he joined a U.S. Army unit training in Michigan and likewise found the training well in line with his expectations. NATO member nations, he commented, seem to have more similarities than differences in their military training.
Academics, though, have been a big surprise. Both Berry and Flack explained that under the British university system, there is no homework. Students are expected to keep up with the reading for each class during the semester, but no one is checking to make sure they do so. There’s one essay required per class and one exam.
“Speaking to some of the upperclassmen, you can see the sense of pride it instills in them, and honestly, if I were an American citizen, I’d love to come to a place like this, because you can see these guys are proud of Breakout.”Oliver Flack Student at the University of Salford, Manchester, United Kingdom
“The onus is on yourself,” noted Berry. “Here, it feels that you’re forced to study.”
In Britain, those without the self-discipline and motivation to study often drop out of universities around Christmastime, he added.
Flack, too, senses a cultural difference between the British university system and VMI.
“Here, between the [VMI] Honor Code and the help received statement, everyone’s fully engaged all of the time,” said Flack.
As of late September, with daytime temperatures still in the low 90s, both exchange students were ready for cooler temperatures. “The one thing that’s got me is the no air conditioning,” Flack commented. “It’s been pretty brutal, especially coming from a country where it’s maybe 50, 55 Fahrenheit all of the time.”
Berry confirmed, “The heat here is killing me. I’ll have three fans on me at any one time, and I’m right next to the window. It’s open 24/7.”
Both enjoy their roommates, all of whom are 1st Class cadets, but Flack had an observation about barracks life that alumni may well relate to. “The décor and the furniture of the room are quite ancient,” he commented. “I’m not sure when the beds are from – maybe the 1920s?”
On a more positive note, the strength of the VMI Honor Code has made a very favorable impression on both. Salford, they noted, has no honor code, and cheating and stealing are common at many British universities. At VMI, both Berry and Flack have accidentally left items behind in public locations and come back hours later to find the items exactly where they’d left them.
“It’s quite admirable,” said Berry. “I do admire their honesty.”
Both have been shocked by the intensity and expectations of the Rat Line. Berry commented that “everything’s done a lot quieter” in the British Army. “There’s not screaming all of the time. You don’t get made to strain.”
Flack agreed, saying, “We don’t have anything like that back home. I’d heard of the Rat Line, but I didn’t know how extreme it was.”
He added, though, that he’s seen the positive side of the VMI’s stringent system for first-year cadets: Pride of accomplishment on the part of those who’ve successfully passed its many tests.
“Speaking to some of the upperclassmen, you can see the sense of pride it instills in them,” Flack commented. “And honestly, if I were an American citizen, I’d love to come to a place like this, because you can see these guys are proud of Breakout.”
Berry will only be at VMI for the fall semester, while Flack will stay for the entire academic year. Each has plans to see a bit more of the United States before he returns to Britain, with Berry planning a Christmas trip to New York City with his sister, who will be traveling from Australia to meet him there. Flack, who had not been to the United States prior to arriving at VMI, is eager to go skiing – a sport he can’t enjoy in his home country – and maybe even take a trip to the Caribbean over spring furlough.
Here on post, though, both Berry and Flack have been enjoying American hospitality and a chance to make new friends. “I’ve been very warmly welcomed by both [cadets] and staff,” said Berry.
In addition to Berry and Flack, other foreign exchange students at VMI this fall are Nick Esser and Laura Berger, both from the German Armed Forces Academy in Hamburg, Germany, and Jean-Baptiste Larivé from the Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, France.
Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing