HARLEM—After he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell said he would often during international trips get asked when he graduated from West Point or another prestigious military college.
"In those days, a black person couldn't go to those schools," said Powell, a 1958 Graduate of City College who would then explain that he got his start in the military as a member of the Reserves Officers Training Corps at his alma mater.
City College graduated ROTC officers beginning in 1917 through 1972 when the program was discontinued after strong opposition to the Vietnam War and a decline in participation. Now, 41 years later, City College is bringing back the ROTC program in the fall and making it the headquarters for the university-wide program.
"Military service is honorable," Powell said Tuesday during a ceremony at City College. "We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all but military service is honorable."
Powell said participation in ROTC was greatly beneficial to him and provide a sense of "place" and "being."
ROTC students get training in military science and leadership and take 24 elective credits during the course of their four year college degree. Students are also available for full scholarships that cover tuition, fees and books along with a monthly stipend.
After graduating, students earn a commission as Army second lieutenants and have a choice to serve in one of 16 different career fields. That's the path Powell took from the Bronx to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.
"They see themselves in General Powell," said City College President Lisa Coico. "Many of our students are first-generation college students."
The new City College location will serve as the city-wide base for Army ROTC activities for the CUNY system, with York College, which began offering ROTC classes last fall, and Medgar Evers College, which will begin offering it in the fall.
Coico said she expect 40 to 50 ROTC graduates per year once the program is up to full speed.
"The nation is becoming more and more diverse. We need more and more leaders to reflect that diversity. I don't think there is any college in the country that is as diverse as City College of New York in respect to its minority representation and immigrant representation," Powell said.
The move marks a change in the ROTC movement, In recent years, Columbia, Harvard and Yale have all added ROTC programs. Columbia famously banned ROTC from the campus in 1969.
Nevertheless, a small group of protesters greeted Powell outside of the college Tuesday and he stopped to speak with them, he says.
"I said 'I don't agree with you but it is certainly your right to express your opinion,'" said Powell who added that opposition to the ROTC based on military policy such as the treatment of homosexuals, is lessening as policies such as "don't ask, don't tell" are repealed.
Maj., Gen. Jeff Smith, commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, signed the agreement with Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, and said the move was "good for America and good for the Army."
Goldstein said the ROTC was "one of the great jewels that made this university special" and that he promised Powell during a meeting years ago that he would reinstate it there if he was ever in a position of power.
Powell, for whom the social sciences division of the college is named, said he's optimistic there won't see a regression of ROTC programs as in the past.
"Once they see these young people standing tall, being respectful, saying 'yes sir, no sir, yes ma'am, no ma'am,' suddenly you find the faculty embraces them and their fellow students respect what they are doing," said Powell.
Dennis Yanza, 18, a freshman cadet at York College said being involved with ROTC has helped him with things such as time management.
"As a freshman, it's sometimes hard to manage all the things you have to do," he said. Yanza said he's considering an Army career either in aviation or the infantry.
"I see it as a positive effect on people's lives," he said.
Powell said he couldn't agree more.
"I was in it for 35 years and don't regret a single day," said Powell of his military service.