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Placer County Air Force Junior ROTC cadets find value in program despite recruitment challenges

Liam Turley was in middle school when he first learned about the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Whitney High School.

He was intrigued by the cadets’ uniforms when they visited his school. Turley later joined the program as a high school freshman.

He stuck with the program for all four years because of the camaraderie he found with his peers.

Along the way, he became an leader. Turley is currently a senior and a cadet lieutenant colonel in the program.

“A lot of the things you learn in this class is like normal school activities, but it helps you in the real world in high stress situations. You’re able to keep calm,” Turley said. “It helps you prepare for a lot of things you don’t expect to happen, but could happen.”

The high school in Rocklin is home to the only Air Force Junior ROTC program in Placer County. Since its creation in 1995, these courses have attracted students from all across the area, said retired Air Force Maj. Jennifer Pearl, the instructor for the course.

Described as a “leadership laboratory,” Pearl said students, also known as cadets, plan, organize and execute all class activities. Pearl and another instructor act as advisers.

Lizzie Lambourne, a senior, said Air Force Junior ROTC offers an environment to learn the fundamentals of being a leader: how to walk the line between being a leader and being a friend and how to reckon with failure.

“What we do is not just another assignment in the class, what we do actually affect the people around us,” said Lambourne, the class’s cadet colonel. “We’re the ones that plan these activities. We’re the ones that decide what are we going to do, how are we going to do it and what procedures we’re going to take.”

Cadets are in charge of organizing community service events and class programs. Currently, they are planning a 13 mile hike in memory of soldiers who died during the Bataan Death March in World War II. In the past, Air Force Junior ROTC cadets have been apart of Placer County Christmas parades as well as Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies. Cadets also visit local elementary schools to teach lessons on social issues like bullying.

While the program is well known in Placer County, enrollment has been trending downwards, said Sundeep Dosanjh, chief of communications and community engagement for Rocklin Unified School District. The target goal for enrollment is 100 students, but the program has 68 cadets this year.

Pearl said COVID-19 impacted enrollment. Students have lost interest and motivation in academics, she said. Pearl’s upperclassmen courses are her smallest, with around nine seniors this year. She anticipates her next senior class will number five students.

“It makes it really hard when they’re the ones to run the course. So we’re just kind of mixing things up, doing the best we can with what we have,” Pearl said. “We call it: ‘Semper Gumby’ in the military, which means always flexible, figure it out, make it happen. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

K-12 enrollment is on the decline statewide since the beginning of the COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the total enrollment in California for the 2018-19 school year was 6,186,278 students according to the California Department of Education. Since, student enrollment has fallen by over 300,000 with 5.85 million students across the state.

Military recruitment is at its lowest, according to the Department of Defense. Military services missed their recruitment goal by 41,000 in 2023.

To increase student numbers, Whitney High’s cadets along with Pearl and their other instructor recruit from local middle schools. The program is also featured in a showcase night where interested parents and students can learn more.

Pearl said she’s hopeful numbers will pick up with increased outreach.

Gabriela Larsen is an alumni of Whitney’s Air Force Junior ROTC program. Even a year after graduation, she said the course’s lessons have stuck with her as she continues her studies at Sierra College.

“My biggest takeaway was to learn from everything,” Larsen said. “To learn from the people before you, to learn from the good and to learn from the bad and to recognize that and continue moving forward.”