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“I Would Never Trade It:” COW Program Sparks Transformational Change

Nadia Wilborne (left) and U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Mia WIlborne pose with their father, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Damian Wilborne '95, at Damian Wilborne's Air Force retirement ceremony, held earlier this year.—Photo courtesy Damian Wilborne '95.

For 36 years, a summer program at VMI has been changing lives, one young man at a time. It’s held without fanfare, so even those on post for other reasons in the summer are often not aware of it. But for many participants, the College Orientation Workshop, usually referred to as COW, is a month-long immersion in academic, physical fitness, and life skills that sets them on the path toward more possibilities than they’d ever imagined.

For the founder, Eugene “Gene” Williams ’74, COW is a testament to his belief that human potential, especially among minority youth, should not go to waste.

COW began in 1987 and has been held on post each summer since, except for 2020 and 2021, when the coronavirus pandemic made it too risky to hold in-person summer camps and other activities. The program is designed to help teenage boys, mostly minorities and many from disadvantaged backgrounds, realize just how much potential they have and how much they can achieve if they put their minds to it.

Williams, the first African American to serve on the VMI Board of Visitors, had been envisioning a program such as COW long before the first 12 boys arrived that first summer. “I had a lot of friends who needed a lot of what VMI gave: The discipline, the structure, real high expectations and forced you out of your comfort zone and forced you out of that attitude, all those kinds of things,” he explained.

With the help of Tom Wright ’54, then a member of the VMI Alumni Association Board of Directors; Clark King, Ph.D., then-head of the physical education department; and Col. Hart Slater, then-business executive, Williams put together the first three-week program on a shoestring budget of $15,000. Even in the 1980s, that wasn’t nearly enough money to cover costs, but Williams also knew that charging tuition would be counterproductive, as the young men most in need of what COW had to offer often come from families that couldn’t afford even a modest fee.

To this day, no COW participant has ever had to pay to attend the program, which now runs for four weeks in July; donations from grateful COW alumni and their families, plus friends of the program, provide the entirety of the budget.

Activities during COW involve a mix of classroom study, concentrating on English/public speaking, mathematics, cognitive assessments, and financial literacy, and challenging outside activities such as climbing House Mountain and canoeing the James River, along with field trips to museums and other schools such as Virginia Tech, so the boys can be exposed to both a smaller school such as VMI and a large research university. Motivational speakers who’ve overcome challenges themselves are part of the program as well.

Approximately 75% of COW graduates go on to college, although Williams usually has no way of knowing which ones complete their studies and earn a degree. Since the program began, about 900 young men have attended, and 33 have signed the Matriculation Book as cadets. Three COW alumni are current members of the Corps of Cadets.

COW alumni often marvel at how far they’ve come, especially when they’ve had to overcome numerous challenges to get where they are today.

Damian Wilborne ’95 grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where he was raised by his great-grandmother because his parents and grandparents all worked long days in New York City, leaving them no time to care for a child.

As a youth, Wilborne was a strong student and talented singer, but a severe lack of financial resources threatened his future. He attended a magnet high school—Arts High School—but the thought of life outside New Jersey had never crossed his mind.

Then one day near the end of his sophomore year, a visitor came to the school, recruiting for a summer program held at a small military college in Virginia. The visitor was Williams, who was then living in New Jersey, and for Wilborne, life has never been the same.

“[Williams] was the guy who took me down the road less traveled,” said Wilborne, who is now a member of the COW Board of Directors. “That program literally changed my world.”

Wilborne, who retired from the Air Force this June after a 26-year career, came to COW twice, once in 1989 and again in 1990. “I was a very shy young man, very introverted,” he recalled. The first summer, when he was asked to rappel down a cliff, Wilborne refused out of fear—and then spent the next year begging Williams to let him come back the next summer and try again. Williams agreed.

“And I was so motivated that second year, I was completely different than the first year … in the second year, I was a leader in the program. And I was extremely confident. I went with a headful of steam,” said Wilborne. That second summer, Wilborne focused on helping others who were afraid—and at the end of the three weeks, Williams presented him with the COW leadership award.

“Our hope is to drive fundamental change in these boys, not just while they’re here. Down the road, years down the road, we’ll wind up with guys who are stronger, more ethical, and more productive.”

Eugene “Gene” Williams ’74, College Orientation Workshop founder

After two summers at COW, matriculating at VMI felt natural for Wilborne—but he only agreed to do so after Williams assured him that commissioning into the military at graduation was no longer a requirement. Financially, Wilborne relied on a mix of grants and loans to pay for his education, as he didn’t qualify for either an NCAA or ROTC scholarship. In the process of applying for financial aid, Wilborne discovered just how little income his great-grandmother really had: $600 per month.

It took 13 years for Wilborne to repay the loans, but he has zero regrets. “It was all for a reason,” he commented. “I would never trade it for my experiences. Starting with the COW program and then going into VMI—I would never trade it.”

Over the course of his cadetship, Wilborne gradually warmed to the idea of commissioning into the military, but he still wanted to put his degree in economics and business to use and eventually earn a Master of Business Administration degree. Williams introduced Wilborne to alumni who were serving in the military and told him that if he wanted to earn an MBA, the military would pay for it as long as he served for at least four years.

At graduation, Wilborne commissioned into the Air Force, intending to stay four years only. He’d never envisioned a military career lasting a quarter century, but that’s exactly what happened—and he earned two MBAs along the way. As a contract negotiator working with the U.S. government, Wilborne put his degrees to use each day.

“The work is exciting. The mission is exciting,” he noted. And like COW, the military provides plenty of challenges, even for those in non-combat jobs. Having learned to step outside of his comfort zone at COW, Wilborne wasn’t fazed by the constant relocations that military life demands. Over the past 26 years, he and his wife, Jacqueline, and their daughters Mia and Nadia have lived all over the globe, from Oklahoma to Hawaii to Turkey and Germany. He even did a stint as an Air Force ROTC instructor at VMI from 2002–04.

This fall, Wilborne is getting ready to start a position with the National Reconnaissance Office, a Department of Defense agency that supports satellite intelligence gathering by the federal government. He’s also a proud father, eager to share the accomplishments of Mia, a U.S. Air Force second lieutenant who’s now attending dental school at Howard University, and Nadia, a sophomore at George Mason University.

Caleb Minus ’20, who grew up in New Jersey, Maryland, and Florida, learned about COW via a connection with Andre Thornton ’98, who was then taking part in a mentorship program for minority males. Thornton steered Minus toward COW, but it was an easy sell, as Minus had long considered a military career.

The 17-hour days of COW didn’t faze Minus at all. “I was definitely more mentally tired than I would have anticipated,” he recalled. “But it was great. You’re around a group of guys. For the most part, everyone’s had to share a common goal of doing well and improving themselves. …. So I was, you know, trying to soak up the experience and all the resources, all the academic resources, financial literacy resources, physical development that COW provided.”

Like Wilborne, Minus returned to Lexington for a second summer of COW—and then, the summer before he matriculated to VMI, he was the program’s head counselor. He applied to other schools as backups, but VMI was his top choice, thanks largely to the encouragement he’d received from alumni—including Thornton, Gerald “Jerry” Acuff ’71, and Joseph “Joe” Sokolowski ’91 and his wife, Stephanie.

“The encouragement of that community was what made VMI the number one for me,” Minus stated.

As a cadet, Minus immersed himself in everything the Institute had to offer. He walked onto the NCAA track team, where he was a sprinter, and was a member of the cadre and the Rat Disciplinary Committee. He also played saxophone with the VMI jazz band, The Commanders, and partnered with Lane Kieler ’19 to deejay at hops and dances, including Ring Figure, and was a member of the Promaji Club.

Academics kept him busy as well, and he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in international studies and a minor in leadership studies. Not surprisingly, Minus stresses time management as one of the biggest takeaways from his cadetship.

Two years out from graduation, Minus is working in acquisitions and contract management while serving in the National Guard.

“VMI and COW are based off the same tenets,” he noted. “VMI is a more intense version of COW. … Essentially, it boils down to mental toughness, time management, and leadership. Those are the biggest contributing factors to my success.”

Without COW, Minus realizes, he might not have gone to VMI, and had he not attended the Institute, he’d have missed what he calls the “extra polish” VMI provides. “The difference between 95% accurate and 99% accurate or 100% accurate is significant,” he commented. “Ninety-five percent accurate is not bad, but it’s hard to squeeze the last 5% out. And I think VMI gives you that extra polishing and sharpening.”

For Williams, who has now seen the children and grandchildren of the original participants attend COW, it’s been deeply satisfying to see COW alumni achieve in ways they might not have if it hadn’t been for the program. Teenage boys, he noted, often look like grown men today, and their size can intimidate teachers, who don’t push them hard enough to make them mad. COW counselors have no problem making kids mad—not when it’s to make them realize they aren’t giving their best effort. Life, Williams has noted more than once, will make them mad, so why avoid it now?

“Our hope is to drive fundamental change in these boys, not just while they’re here,” Williams stated. “Down the road, years down the road, we’ll wind up with guys who are stronger, more ethical, and more productive.”

  • Mary Price

    Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist

    The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.