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Pauling ’06: VMI was the “Starting Point”

Shelly Pauling '06: Why I VMI


Recruited to run track at VMI, Lezshell “Shelly” Mackall Pauling ’06, Ph.D., was already accustomed to running hard races long before she matriculated. She didn’t realize, however, that at VMI, the hardest race is the one you run against yourself.

When she matriculated in 2002, Pauling was part of a unique group: One of 32 women recruited to VMI by Maj. Claudia Pirkle, then-assistant director of admissions. At the time, it was the largest class of women recruited since coeducation began in 1997.

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Pauling knew little about the Institute before she arrived in summer 2002 to take part in the Summer Transition Program, but she had grit, determination, and plenty of experience as an outsider.

“Growing up, my mom taught at a gymnastics camp, and my brother and I were the only minorities,” said Pauling. “So, I’m used to sticking out like a sore thumb in any situation. Essentially, I embraced it, as if I had already been through this.”

The Rat Line was as hard for Pauling as for any other rat, and academics were also challenging. But she knew physical fitness was well within her grasp, and in the first semester of her rat year, she astounded her male peers by doing 20 pullups as part of the VMI fitness test. That same year, she broke six school records for track—four of them in one weekend.

Very quickly, Pauling learned that at VMI, actions speak louder than words.

“With some of the guys not being able to even do that many [pullups], it allowed me to have some flexibility of not being messed with as much,” Pauling noted. “I was all about not having the target on my back.”

But despite these successes, by October of her rat year, Pauling was rethinking her decision. The teammate she’d been recruited with left, and Pauling felt alone. She contacted her high school guidance counselor and began applying to other schools.

But in the end, she didn’t follow through. “Something clicked in my brain the following week that said, ‘You know what, you’ve never quit at anything else,’” Pauling recalled. Soon, she called the guidance counselor back and told her to tear up the applications.

At the same time, a key realization hit. The Rat Line “wasn’t meant to be defeating,” said Pauling. “It was meant to build us up.”

With that new mindset in place, Pauling switched her major from biology to psychology and saw her grades rise. She also held rank in the Corps, serving as S7 lieutenant her 1st Class year. This position involved community engagement and volunteer work, including helping to build a house for a family left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

Shelly Pauling standing on sidewalk with barracks in the background

Lezshell “Shelly” Mackall Pauling ’06, Ph.D., works as a mental performance coach with U.S. Special Operations Command soldiers.—Photo by Micalyn Miller, VMI Alumni Agencies.

By the time graduation rolled around, Pauling found herself one of 12 women crossing the stage (two would graduate with other classes), and she missed graduating with distinction by just a hair’s breadth.

After VMI, Pauling completed three more degrees: An Associate degree in health sciences, a Master of Science degree in sports psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in psychology—the latter two from Capella University. Today, she works as a mental performance coach with U.S. Special Operations Command soldiers.

Much of her work is classified, so the information Pauling can share is limited, but she has a phrase she uses to describe her day-to-day: “I’m what you would consider a personal trainer for the mind.” In this role, Pauling helps soldiers learn to focus their attention for longer periods of time, regulate their physiological states in stressful situations, and retain more information in long-term memory, naming a few of her responsibilities.

Pauling has also found time to give back to VMI. She’s currently a member of the Keydet Club Board of Governors, and she’s also spoken to the Promaji Club and the Psychology Club about her experiences as a cadet and topics within her current career, as well as participated in the 2021 Alumni Engagement Conference.

Saying yes to the Keydet Club, Pauling noted, was “a too-easy answer,” as she was once a scholarship athlete herself. “I’m busy, but I’ll definitely do it,” she recalled herself thinking when the call came. “There’s so much more that I’m excited to do and get done to help out with the Keydet Club and giving back to VMI … in different ways than just showing up for a reunion weekend.”

For current cadets, especially rats, Pauling has one piece of advice: Think about the big picture, the entire four-year experience, not just your current situation.

“Just take it year by year and experience by experience,” she counseled. “Every aspect of VMI, whether you think about it or not, is going to prep you for something that you’re going to encounter in the future.”

It’s a wisdom that Pauling continues to live by, even though she’d never imagined her career path on Matriculation Day.

“Now when I go out on rucks with soldiers, and it starts pouring down raining, they’re like, ‘Do you want to jump in the truck?’” she related. “No, I’m not jumping in the truck. I’m going to stay out here. We’re going to ruck.”

Looking back, Pauling describes VMI as “the jumping point, the starting point for how everything else just kind of fell into place. … [VMI] has contributed a lot to why I’m more resilient as I’ve gotten older. I’m forever grateful for that experience and that opportunity.”

Four female cadets seated, smiling, with arms around each other.

Join us Sept. 9-10 as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of women at Virginia Military Institute.

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