Cadet Stories of Impact

Cathcart ’24: “Now or Never”

Cole Cathcart '24


As a native of Lexington, Virginia, Cole Cathcart ’24 grew up almost literally in the shadow of the barracks. The son of an alumnus, Charlie Cathcart ’91, Cathcart was attending Institute functions from the time he could toddle, and when he was in high school, Cathcart saw his older brother, Charles S. “Trey” Cathcart ’22, enter the Rat Line. Completing the circle, the boys’ mother, Cheryl Cathcart, is the VMI Alumni Agencies director of human resources.

Even with all signs seemingly pointing toward Letcher Avenue, Cathcart wasn’t entirely sure if the Institute was the place for him. The brother rat spirit held great appeal, as did the Institute’s lifelong commitment to honor. At the same time, though, Cathcart knew that he’d be giving up some of the perks of a traditional college.

As the time to make a decision neared, Cathcart attended a VMI open house, applied, and was accepted. But when the news of his acceptance came, he didn’t share it with his family right away. Instead, Cathcart took a couple of weeks to take stock and assess his options.

“It just took some self-reflection,” he stated. “It took the realization that I could go to VMI out of high school and potentially pursue something like a post-graduate degree, but I couldn’t do it the other way around. … It was now or never to go to VMI.”

Cathcart, an economics and business major and president of his class, entered the Rat Line in August 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Masked and socially distanced to the fullest extent possible in VMI’s close quarters, he and his brother rats bonded over their shared struggles.

“[COVID-19] was a difficult time to be a cadet in general,” he commented. “But … I think we were actually lucky to be rats at that time. … Being a rat in the COVID era, we had to rely on each other. … There was almost a deeper level of connection there.”

But the Rat Line produces moments of discouragement and frustration for all rats, and Cathcart was no exception. During Tuesday of Matriculation Week, though, he had an experience that strengthened his resolve for the journey ahead. “We’re walking down to Crozet,” he said. “And I was feeling pretty bad about myself. I wasn’t considering leaving, but I was feeling down and out.”

At that moment, Cathcart looked up and saw his brother approaching. Trey Cathcart ’22, then a member of the S6 staff, said just three words to his brother—“Go get ’em”—but they carried an outsized impact. Even today, Cathcart can remember the energy of that moment. “Having him here and his support meant everything to me,” Cathcart related.

"My sense of enjoyment is ending every day knowing that I had challenges, and I did my best to meet those challenges, to face them, and to accomplish a goal.”

Cole Cathcart ’24

Support from brother rats, too, was critical in those early days. “You get out of your own head … and then you realize you’re in it with 450 to 500 other people, your brother rats, and that makes it a little more bearable,” he continued. “It’s not just about you. You’re not the center of the universe.”

Near the end of his rat year, Cathcart had the great honor of being elected president of his class—a lifelong responsibility at VMI. “To be honest, I didn’t entirely know what the position entailed or what the future would look like,” he commented. “But I was assured that I was trusted, and I was going to work toward meeting that standard of trust, making sure that I worked for my peers.”

Now, two-and-a-half years into the role, Cathcart can see how he’s grown as a leader—and how important it is for leaders to work with others whose strengths complement their own. “I see myself as an interpersonal communicator,” he said. “I’m able to sit down, have a conversation, be it about a fun topic or a tough topic, and make progress and get to know someone. But I think I’ve got some work to do on the planning side of things and operations. I’ve been blessed to be working with a lot of people who are good at that, and they kind of pick up the slack where I’m not as good at it. So, I’ve learned that I need to rely on others to be successful and to meet a goal.”

In just six months, Cathcart will commission into the U.S. Navy and graduate from VMI. Having entered the Institute during the pandemic, he’s seen the Corps adapt and thrive in a variety of circumstances, and to him, that’s confirmation that VMI is on the right track.

“There’s more buy-in and enjoyment of the VMI experience on the cadet level than I’ve seen in the past couple of years,” he noted. “I think folks really are enjoying the VMI experience, finding their own niche, dealing with the day-to-day challenges, and doing it with a smile and with an appreciation for the system.”

Cathcart was quick to add, though, that “enjoy” doesn’t always mean that every cadet is always happy all of the time. “VMI is a difficult place,” he acknowledged. “And when I say that cadets enjoy the experience across the board, I’m speaking about my sense of enjoyment. And my sense of enjoyment is ending every day knowing that I had challenges, and I did my best to meet those challenges, to face them, and to accomplish a goal.”

With the perspective of almost four years in barracks behind him, Cathcart has a message for high schoolers on the fence about VMI just as he once was. “The thing about VMI is that you’re growing at a rate faster than your peers,” he stated. “It’s hard to think on the long-term perspective of your life, by any means, but with a college experience, I’ve always reassured folks who are interested in VMI … they are experiencing something that their peers are not. They’re growing and becoming more mature and developed individuals who will become more successful in society as they move on.”

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