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Mark Gonsalves ’81: Why I VMI

Mark Gonsalves '81


“There’s something unique about Lexington, Virginia. There’s something unique about the [VMI] experience.”

That’s how Mark Gonsalves ’81 explains his consistent connection to the Institute—one that has sustained him through more than four decades and two careers, one in the military and one in the civilian sector. Today, as president of the New York City–Long Island Chapter, Gonsalves strives each day to spread the good word about VMI wherever he goes.

“I’m not giving because I want to receive, but I get a lot of a lot of pride and a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of accomplishment watching people get plugged into VMI events,” he stated.

A native of Massachusetts, Gonsalves had his sights set on the U.S. Military Academy as a teenager. But rather than complete high school in his native state, he decided to attend Fork Union Military Academy for his senior year in preparation for West Point. He didn’t know it at the time, but that decision would change the course of his life.

Upon arrival at Fork Union, Gonsalves became a member of the wrestling team—and the team coach just happened to be Harry McKnight III ’75. With McKnight’s urging, Gonsalves applied to the Institute and was accepted.

“I showed up cold,” he recalled. With no idea of what was coming next, Gonsalves began the Rat Line that day with his brother rats. Soon, though, he’d found his place with the guidance of his dyke, Terry McKnight ’78, brother of Harry McKnight and a current VMI Board of Visitors member.

As a cadet, Gonsalves played a key role in establishing the club boxing team, which is today known for its popularity with cadets. “I was small at that time as a rat,” Gonsalves recalled. “I think I weighed 118 pounds. Rat boxing—I just latched onto that. … So myself and an upperclassman, we decided to make it a club sport and submitted a lot of permits and went through the protocol to make boxing a club sport and then eventually an intramural sport.”

In 1980, the club boxing team won the AAU championship, and Gonsalves placed third individually. Today, with the boxing team’s 2022 national title still fresh in his mind, Gonsalves is happy to see the club he and others began continue to offer an outlet for cadets.

“I think it’s important that we reflect what VMI has given us and figure out a way to contribute and give back.”

Mark Gonsalves ’81

“I kind of saw the seed of that tree grow, and it’s definitely something that I’m very proud of,” he stated.

Academically, though, Gonsalves had some struggles. He began as a biology major, but when his grades dipped below a 2.0 grade point average, he switched to history. Today, Gonsalves describes himself as a “2.0 and go” graduate, but his academic challenges reinforced two critical lessons from VMI: Resilience and humility.

“I believe everything happens for a reason and a purpose, and it serves us for a bigger mission,” he stated. “And I think that the reason and purpose of VMI was to really cultivate my foundation as a human being, as a father, as a husband, as a grandfather, as a mentor, as a chapter president, and as a proud alumnus.”

After graduation, Gonsalves commissioned into the U.S. Army and served in the special forces. He’d already stayed the course and put in the work to earn a VMI diploma—and later, he found that same Institute-instilled grit necessary to become a Green Beret. After his time in the Army, he started his own business.

Today, Gonsalves stays busy as a chapter president in an area teeming with alumni and prospective cadets. In addition to serving as an overall ambassador for VMI, he’s particularly interested in helping those whose Institute connections have weakened over time rediscover the value of keeping in touch with their brother rats.

“But what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen, for alumni that do plug back in, is there was always something missing,” Gonsalves noted. “There was a void that they longed for, that they wanted. And maybe by plugging into your brother rats, or a reunion or a dinner or luncheon in your local chapter, you can get back some of that spark.”

Gonsalves has never lost that spark. From the beginning of his cadetship, he bonded tightly with his roommates, and those bonds have remained strong over the years.

“We bonded our rat year, and we stayed together throughout our cadetship,” Gonsalves stated. “And then after our cadetship, even though a number of us had military service, we always made a point of checking in … and we made a point of getting together, and then as our families grew, there were ski trips, there were river trips, there were lake trips, and still to this day, now four decades later, we still support each other.”

Would this have happened at another school? Gonsalves is doubtful. “I really think that it’s hard to find another experience, another school that fosters that type of camaraderie and support,” he said.

With so much gained from VMI, Gonsalves is eager not only to support the Institute but also to encourage others to do so. “I think it’s important that we reflect what VMI has given us and figure out a way to contribute and give back,” he stated. “Frankly, it’s not always about money. It’s sometimes as simple as getting on a call with a cadet looking for an internship, which I’ve done as chapter president, or helping a transitioning Army officer who’s looking to leave military life. … Contribution comes in many forms.”

  • Christian Heilman

    Christian Heilman Director of Digital Content

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