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They rise before the crack of dawn every morning while many of us still lie in bed. If you’re on campus early enough, like I usually am, you’ll hear the sound of ‘Taps’ resounding from Upper Quad as the flag is raised for the day. If you listen closely again at 5 p.m., you’ll hear a second playing of ‘Taps’ as the flag comes down. Follow the sound to the drill field about twenty minutes later and you can witness the Highty Tighties, the Corps’ regimental band, practicing their routines and Sousa marches for the next football game.

The Corps of Cadets brings a whole new tradition to Virginia Tech. Seeing more than 1,000 young men and women in uniform on a daily basis is a sight that never gets old. It started with VT’s first student William Addison Caldwell in 1872 and continues strong today. While many cadets commission and go into service after their time in the Corps, commission is not mandatory.  VT is one of six senior military colleges that does not require service after graduation.

Each year, the Corps welcomes over 350 freshmen to Blacksburg in August for New Cadet Week. They become well acquainted with their companies through rigorous physical training and leadership classes in no time. Freshmen can be easily spotted by the white “rat belts” on their uniforms; upper-class cadets wear black belts.

When classes start and all the cadets are mixed in with one another, it’s hard to tell them apart. A friend from my high school went into the Corps, and for the first few months of freshman year, I didn’t recognize him under his spiffy blue and white uniform and cap. They all look the same!

Cadets learn more than what their studies and training require.  Chivalry is certainly not dead in the Corps, and it shows in each and every cadet. I cannot count how many times a cadet has held a door open for me or moves to the right on the sidewalk so I can pass. Even when I meet a cadet friend for lunch to catch up, he won’t allow me to open a door for myself. How polite! I’ve even had a cadet tip his hat to me a time or two. It’s so refreshing to see chivalry exhibited so often from so many Southern gentlemen in uniform.

A statue of Caldwell, the first cadet

In the midst of all the training, classes and lessons, freshman cadets do get some chances for fun. Each company has a turn to paint the strip of concrete outside Lane Hall known as the “rat path.”  It’s a secret, overnight mission assigned by the company’s cadre that aims to build company unity and show Corps pride. Some rat path artwork is truly artistic, and sometimes it’s more humorous. No matter what design is painted, it always gives me something nice to look at as I trek across Upper Quad for my classes in Shanks Hall.

One of the most recognized traditions at VT for cadets and civilians alike is the Class Ring and the formal Ring Dance. Since 1911, each class has designed its own ring, which is premiered in the fall of the class’s junior year. The dance, held since 1934, comes in the spring. Junior cadets stand in the shape of the class numerals—2014 at this year’s dance0—and exchange rings with their dates.  At this point, civilian attendees exchange rings with their dates, too, symbolizing the transition from junior to senior for all.  The night is capped off with a fireworks display on the drill field.

The year finishes with Pass in Review, in which command is passed down to new leaders and graduating cadets are recognized for their accomplishments.  Freshmen “turn” and replace their white “last damn rat belts” with fancy black upperclassman belts.  The Pass in Review ceremony is held on the drill field, and every year hundreds of students and locals come to watch.

After attending VT for three years, I’m always thrown off when I visit other colleges and don’t see cadets everywhere. The Corps tradition at VT is a special experience, even for a civilian like me.

hokiebird-238x238Kate Robertson is a features writer for Pretty Southern, and a rising senior at Virginia Tech studying communication and English. Originally form Atlanta, Kate plans to graduate in 2014 to launch a professional career in writing and public relations. Follow her on Twitter @kate3robertson.