By Geoff Ziezulewicz
When she was touring colleges during spring break of her junior year at Plainfield South High School, Savannah Emmrich checked out the grounds of The Citadel, a storied military college in Charleston, S.C.
“When I showed up at The Citadel and got on the campus and saw the uniforms and the knobs double-timing, and the dress parade they had on Friday, I was so impressed,” the 21-year-old said. “I knew that was where I wanted to go.”
Emmrich learned quickly that “knobs” is slang for freshmen cadets, “double-timing” is a marching pace and “dress parade” is a parade in full military uniform.
As she gets ready to graduate from The Citadel this spring, Emmrich has not only immersed herself in the school’s military culture while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, she has risen to the top of the cadet ranks. She currently holds the No. 2 position among the 2,300 cadets in the school’s regiment, which is essentially the military version of a civilian college’s student body.
Emmrich is second in command of the cadet unit that operates like a unit in the military, and school officials say she is one of a few female cadets who has held the position.
This command position means she helps lead the cadets in their morning workouts, conducts inspections, meets with lower-level cadet commanders and leads them in formation to meals. Along with those duties, she still has to handle her own class load.
After graduation, Emmrich, who received a track-and-field scholarship to attend the school, is slated to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. She will train to be a combat systems officer, also known as an aviator, or “the job Goose does” in the movie “Top Gun,” she said.
Life at The Citadel and America’s other military colleges is one that stands in stark contrast to the beer bong-hoisting, class-skipping lives of many undergrads at civilian institutions of higher learning.
“It’s very different than a normal college lifestyle,” she said. “We have a training schedule, and it tells us what to do 24 hours every single day. You’re expected to follow it to a T and be on time for everything.”
Emmrich’s day starts at 5 a.m. and continues on, each hour spoken for with rare exceptions, until she hits the hay.
It can be demanding, she admitted, but also fulfilling.
Back home over Christmas break, Emmrich said she sometimes isn’t sure what to do with this sudden uptick in free time.
“When I got to the school, I realized how much I enjoy a regimented lifestyle,” she said. “It was a good fit.”
When she is not immersed in studies or student leadership obligations, Emmrich is one of The Citadel’s star athletes.
She holds the school’s pole vaulting record and competes in other track events.
Still, Emmrich remains one of just 160 women among the 2,300 cadets.
The Citadel only began allowing women back in the 1990s, according to retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, now the head of the women in the military project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute.
The Citadel was a “really hard case” when it came to gender integration, Manning said.
But as women have proven they can serve in previously male-only military jobs in the post-9/11 wars, those against such integration have largely “gotten over the shock,” Manning said.
“I think it’s marvelous,” Manning said of Emmrich’s accomplishments. “There are people who will pooh-pooh it and say she had it easy. Usually it’s the opposite. She has to be better, brighter, smarter and more physically fit than the guys who had to fill that position before her.”
Kimberly Keelor, a spokeswoman at The Citadel, said one of the challenges of increasing the female population is that so few women are interested in a military college environment.
Fewer than 800 women enrolled at one of the six major military colleges this past fall, she said, and the competition to recruit them is considerable.
Emmrich said “standing your own ground is huge at The Citadel,” and that she’d encourage any woman in her shoes to apply.
“Every year it gets better with the acceptance of females,” she said. “There really hasn’t been any big issues like it was in the beginning. You definitely have pride, and girls do stick together. It’s still different being a girl at The Citadel.”
Being a cadet in general at The Citadel is a taxing undertaking, said retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Charles Graham, an adviser to the cadet regiment’s chain of command who has known Emmrich since she was a knob.
“It’s even tougher when you’re a female,” he said, “and it’s even tougher when you’re a female athlete.
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Emmrich has been put in a position to succeed academically and athletically at the school, Graham said, “and she excelled in everything she did.”
“Some congratulations are in order for her parents and her teachers and her coaches back in Illinois,” he said. “Because when she walked through our gates here, it was obvious she was something special.”