ROTC at Penn State: A Brief History

The university's formal Army training programs date back to 1917, with Naval and Air Force training added in the 1940's.

military training illustrations by Nick Sloff '92 A&A

Military training has existed at Penn State since its founding, but the first formal Reserve Officer Training Corps program was formed in 1917, after the National Defense Act of 1916 formalized a program of Army officer training at certified colleges across the country.

Today, the university’s ROTC comprises three programs: Penn State Army ROTC, dubbed the Nittany Lion Battalion, trains students to be commissioned as a second lieutenant and to serve in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, or Army Reserve. The Naval ROTC (NROTC) trains qualified students for service as commissioned officers in the Navy, the Navy Nurse Corps, or the Marine Corps. And the Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) program trains qualified students for service in the Air Force and Space Force.

Below is a brief history of military training at the university.   

1862: The Morrill Land Grant Act specifies that land-grant institutions must provide military tactics as part of their education.

1864: The University Board of Trustees votes to create a military department; students are organized into a military company and required to complete two hours of drill each week. Brevet Brig. Gen. John Fraser is appointed the first professor of military science. He eventually becomes the third president of the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

1865: Military exercises for male freshman and sophomore students become mandatory. Until World War I, military instruction consists principally of drill, with an occasional lecture on a subject of military interest. 

1916: The National Defense Act of 1916 establishes the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to create a voluntary system of building leaders that the Army would need in the event of a large-scale war.

1917: The first ROTC unit is established at Penn State, comprised of more than 200 juniors and seniors. A year later, the unit is replaced with the Student Army Training Corps (SATC)—which the government makes compulsory for all physically qualified male college students—for the duration of World War I. Penn State reestablishes ROTC in February of 1919.

1926: Congress creates a national Naval ROTC program.

1932: The Marine Corps enters the Navy ROTC program, offering qualified Navy ROTC graduates commissions in the U.S. Marine Corps.

1942: Enrollment in Army ROTC at Penn State increases to 1,200 members following the outbreak of war in December 1941.

1943: The Navy College Training Program is established at Penn State, part of the national effort to produce more commissioned officers for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps during World War II. The same year, around 100 female students are enrolled in the Curtiss-Wright “Cadettes” program at Penn State. Aviation manufacturer Curtiss-Wright Corp. pays for women’s technical training in aeronautical engineering in the hopes they will later take jobs at its defense plants.

1945: The Naval ROTC (NROTC) scholarship program is established at the university.

1946: The Air Corps, renamed Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) in 1948, is founded at Penn State.

1948: ROTC training becomes mandatory for undergraduate males.

1952: Penn State’s AFROTC unit, Detachment 720, is named the third largest Air Force ROTC detachment in the country.

1956: The first women cadets join an experimental WAF ROTC program. The following year, the first female cadet, Sylvia Boyce ’60 Sci, is admitted to Detachment 720’s rifle team.

1960: Bethann Boltz O’Doyle ’60 Lib becomes the first female cadet commissioned at Penn State. In May, the Wagner Building is dedicated and becomes the home of ROTC at University Park. It’s named in memory of Lt. Harry Edward Wagner ’41 Lib, who was killed in action while fighting in Europe during World War II. Wagner volunteered to be a paratrooper and served in the 507th parachute infantry regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

1964: Following a vote in the University Senate and approval by the Board of Trustees, military training becomes voluntary at Penn State.

1969: Army ROTC opens to women.

1971: Detachment 720’s female cadets are fully integrated into the corps.

1972: Five women attending Penn State are awarded Army ROTC scholarships—one-fourth of the 20 ROTC scholarships awarded to women across the country that year.

1995: Penn State’s Army ROTC is named “best from coast to coast” out of 350 Army ROTC programs by U.S. Army Cadet Command, the command that oversees ROTC.

2013: Nittany Lion Battalion’s Ranger Challenge team finishes with the best placement ever seen by a ROTC team at 2nd Place and as the best American team in the international Sandhurst Military Skills Competition.

2016: Nittany Lion Battalion’s cadets and alumni celebrate 100 years of the Army ROTC program.

Today, Penn State Army ROTC is recognized as one of the top ROTC programs in the nation, one of 42 participating battalions in the U.S. Army Cadet Command’s 2nd “Freedom” Brigade.

Penn State’s NROTC is the largest in the Big Ten, and one of the largest in the country outside of military service academies. And Detachment 720 has in recent years been designated as the best large detachment in the Northeast Region.