Leading in service: Boggins ’20 guides Air Force ROTC cadets in greater Greensboro detachment

Elon University's U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army ROTC programs aren't always understood on campus.That's changing as the university ramps up recruitment, recognition and support for programs that shape service-minded leaders.

Sarah Boggins started the Air Force ROTC program at Elon University ready to be honed into a leader.

As a girl, she had taken careful inventory of leaders she admired: How did they succeed? How did they treat people? Where did they invest their energy? She cataloged the virtues she saw — planning and organization, fairness, decisiveness, empathy, a willingness to listen — and set about cultivating those within herself.

She realized early a military career would foster those attributes and make her of service to the world.

Now Cadet Col. Boggins, she serves as Cadet Wing Commander for roughly 120 Air Force ROTC cadets at N.C. A&T State University Detachment 605, leading their training and tracking their progress.

“ROTC helped me discover my passion for my people. I’ve realized, at all costs, I will protect and ensure the success of my people. Regardless of the stress you may have, you still have people you have to care about,” Boggins said recently.

She’ll graduate this spring having grown into the kind of leader she admired, prepared to become even stronger. She and fellow Elon cadet graduates will be commissioned as U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army officers.

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program recruits, educates and commissions college students for leadership roles as military officers. Elon offers Air Force and Army ROTC programs through an agreement with N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. First-year and sophomore students are eligible to enter the ROTC program with no service commitment. Juniors and seniors commit themselves to between four and 10 years of military service, entering service as second lieutenants.

Students in the ROTC program make up a small but tight-knit group, easily recognized on campus in the fatigues and dress uniforms they wear on certain days each week. They travel often, almost daily, to A&T to train with cadets from that campus, UNC Greensboro, High Point University and others.

Though ROTC has been a presence on Elon’s campus since the mid-1970s, it’s in a period of growth under President Connie Ledoux Book, cadets say. Book returned to Elon in 2018 after serving as provost at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston, S.C. Since then, Elon has established an ROTC advisory board focused on recruiting, improving student experiences and supporting ROTC’s mission.

When Boggins arrived in 2016, she was one of three first-year Air Force ROTC cadets. One of those three didn’t finish the year.

“It felt like I was navigating Elon by myself,” she said. “Since then, I’ve made it a priority to make it better for future cadets. I get their names before the semester starts. I make sure they know where to go.”

Matt Oertel is one of the 12 Air Force ROTC cadets currently on Elon’s campus. He joined ROTC his sophomore year and recalled Boggins’ support “right from the beginning.”

“She always goes above and beyond to help people,” said Oertel, who serves directly under Boggins as a group commander. “She helps me do my job. She’s the person everybody looks to for leadership in our detachment.”

Oertel and junior Catherine LoGrande believe Boggins’ organization and leadership skills have improved Detachment 605’s efficiency.

“She’s a mentor for me,” said junior Catherine LoGrande. “She’s always on top of her game, and she’s always looking out for us, especially those of us from Elon.”

Boggins made physical and academic sacrifices in her determination to rise through the ranks, lead the detachment and achieve her military career goals.

She awakes well before dawn, and several days a week begins her trek to A&T before 5 a.m. for physical training. She’s in Greensboro four days a week this semester and is often there on weekends for volunteer and service events.

Boggins is planning a career in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, investigating crimes related to the military and personnel, and is majoring in applied mathematics with minors in criminal justice studies and peace and conflict studies.

Elon University’s academics expanded her worldview and boosted her confidence, she said. A first-year course reading about injustices within the justice system sparked her interest in criminology. Math faculty have worked extra time to ensure she and others grasp the content. Performing scientific research with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Justin Clar taught her to appreciate the learning that happens through mistakes.

Clar recognized Boggins’ talents and enthusiasm almost immediately.

“The thing I noticed about her: You only had to show her how to do something once,” Clar said. “And she was OK with making mistakes, which I found incredibly helpful. That teaches you faster, figuring it out on your own. She learned it faster.”

During her first two years at Elon, Boggins worked with Clar and other students to research the safety of nanoparticle coatings. Specifically, students were testing how easily nanoparticles shed when touched, how quickly they are ingested, and whether they are safe in those doses.

Boggins wanted to major in chemistry but changed to mathematics to pursue her military criminal investigations path. That meant leaving the research project and group she’d dedicated months to. She was obviously disappointed, Clar said, but she had the discipline to sacrifice for the career she wanted.

Clar was especially impressed when she took on training her successor in the lab, explaining the methodology and teaching them how to calibrate and use the equipment.

“Sarah took that on for me,” Clar said. “That freed me up to do things I wouldn’t have had time to do in terms of exploring new research avenues for other students.”

The research team plans to publish the results this spring. Boggins will have her name among those on the study.

ROTC’s challenges have only increased Boggins’ drive and understanding of the kind of leader she hopes to be.

“My philosophy now is why I want to go into the military. I want to improve the lives of my people and the experiences they have after I’m gone,” Boggins said. “When I leave a program, I want to make sure it’s improved and better for those following after me.”

In reflecting on her character, Clar recalled a service project she was involved in to collect books to send to prisoners.

“I think that speaks to her empathy. How can you lead someone if you don’t know where they’re coming from?” he said. “The service will be better with her in it.”