In a Matriculation Weekend unique in many ways due to the coronavirus pandemic, the largest class in VMI’s 181-year history arrived on post Aug. 15-16, wearing masks and staying socially distanced throughout.
Once the two days were done, 522 rats had matriculated, up from 515 in 2019 and 519 in 2018. This year’s rat mass, which will become the Class of 2024 after Breakout, hails from 33 states and four foreign countries. There are 64 women and 103 recruited NCAA athletes. Approximately 60 percent of the class is majoring in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and 40 percent in the liberal arts.
Normally done on one day – usually the third Saturday in August – this year, matriculation was spread out over two days, with half of the rat mass arriving on Saturday and the other on Sunday, to allow for proper social distancing. All incoming rats and those accompanying them were required to go through a health screening, including a temperature check, before receiving wristbands necessary for admittance to facilities on post. Matriculating rats were limited to only two guests to keep the numbers down each day.
But the mask requirement and wristbands weren’t the only changes for these new cadets. Immediately after marching out of Cameron Hall and up Letcher Avenue to barracks, rats met with their administrative handlers, who began to start the tasks necessary to complete matriculation. This year, Matriculation Week ran for 16 days rather than the traditional nine. Because of the protocols required during the pandemic, Matriculation Week was divided into two parts: An administrative period and a training period.
“Everything takes longer due to COVID,” said Col. William “Bill” Wanovich ’87, commandant, in explaining the schedule changes. “Physical training takes longer. Hygiene takes longer. We needed more time to do it.”
For the rats, their late afternoon and evening hours on Matriculation Weekend were spent listening to a presentation about COVID-19 safety precautions, learning about the Honor Court, and on Sunday evening, they were given the option of attending a chapel service. Over the course of Matriculation Week, rats got their hair cut, received their uniforms and participated in company athletics, among many other activities. Meet your cadre took place one week after matriculation, Sunday, Aug. 23, and was followed by more intense military training.
But while this year’s matriculation was unusual, it wasn’t unheard of in all of Institute history, noted Col. Keith Gibson ’77, director of the VMI Museum System. Quick drop-offs weren’t uncommon when he was a cadet, and in the Institute’s early days, transportation difficulties often delayed cadets.
“In the early days of the Institute, it was very common for cadets to arrive late,” said Gibson. He added that one of VMI’s most famous alumni, Gen. George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901, matriculated a week late – and the Old Corps was already on the Parade Ground training when Marshall walked through the Limits Gates.
Alumni volunteer leaders adapted to this year’s COVID-19 restrictions, reaching out to 330 new rats. Traditionally, VMI alumni chapters throughout the country hold rat send-offs for incoming cadets. Often well-attended events, incoming cadets and their families can meet and get to know alumni. The alumni offer timely advice to the young people and their families. The bonds formed between alumni and those about to become alumni is irreplaceable.
Chapter leaders – as VMI folks always do – worked with the situation and achieved great results. Some chapters held virtual rat send-offs, while others gathered outside. In all cases, chapters complied with government restrictions. Nearly 100 more incoming cadets attended rat send-offs in 2020, as compared to 2019.
Though the number of chapters able to hold rat send-offs was limited by the pandemic, over half of the rat class had an opportunity to be welcomed at over 25 rat send-off events.
“A huge thank you goes out to all the volunteers for their service. Every year, their hard work is what makes these events possible,” Thom Brashears ’95, Alumni Association chief operating officer, said. “But this year, chapter leadership had to think outside the box. Some had to learn to use new technology, like Zoom. Undaunted, they pulled together and provided opportunities to welcome over half the incoming class at rat send-offs. The effort, care and planning from our volunteers is what makes these events so special. Pandemic or not, VMI alumni always make it happen.”
Mary Price VMI Communcations & Marketing
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