Montana State University

Parsons is MSU's first Native American ROTC grad

April 6, 2010 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Heather Parsons, a senior at Montana State University majoring in psychology and a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, credits involvement in ROTC with transforming her from a floundering student to an excellent student and a leader. Parsons will be the first Native American to graduate from MSU's ROTC program. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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There are days when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. that Heather Parsons is as surprised as anyone that she gets up and runs the three miles required as a cadet in Montana State University's Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.

"You just have to decide, when that alarm goes off every morning, do you want to be an officer or don't you?" said Parsons, a senior from Browning.

For the past three years, Parsons' answer has been an assured yes. And in August, Cadet Captain Parsons will get her wish. She will be commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In doing so, Parsons, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, will become the first Native American to complete and graduate from MSU's ROTC program, according to MSU ROTC.

"We have a lot of Native Americans who serve in the military, but very few who are leaders," said Jim Burns, MSU's Native American student adviser and a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. "Heather is an inspiration to other Native students."

It might seem that responsibility -- to be the first Native American, much less a female Native American -- to graduate from MSU ROTC, would be as heavy as the 60-pound pack that Parsons carried during last summer's rigorous Leadership Development Assessment Course camp. Yet Parsons, who is quiet yet confident, has accomplished this with a good amount of grace.

"She's an outstanding student and she's very dedicated to ROTC," said Lt. Col. James West, commander of MSU ROTC, of Parsons, who is responsible for 70 ROTC cadets.

West said that Parsons has demonstrated an excellence at synthesizing her passions for both her psychology major and the military experiences, and he praises her ability to balance both the requirements of ROTC and scholastic excellence. "She has a passion for both and has achieved at both."

Yet, that hasn't been the case for Parsons' entire career at MSU. In fact, when she first came to MSU, she struggled mightily, she said.

"Like a lot of people, I thought that college would be an extension of high school," said Parsons. "It definitely wasn't."

Parsons attended schools in Browning all of her life until her senior year, when she moved to Oregon where her father had a temporary job. Parsons said that she loved basketball, and while in Browning "I was just good enough to play J.V.," she was good enough in Oregon that she won a scholarship to a community college.

"But I missed Montana, I wanted to be closer to home and my family, so I picked MSU," she said. "It turns out I definitely made the right decision."

Parsons began in pre-med, "which was a really bad idea." And then she tried liberal studies and English. Her sophomore year she signed up for the Montana National Guard to help finance her education.

"My grandmother (L.V. Pilling of Browning. Her grandfather is Charles Pilling) convinced me that I should try out ROTC, which I did my junior year," said Parsons, who calls herself a "double-senior," or a fifth-year senior. "And, I don't know, but I just really liked it. So, it's not about money any more. It's about a career, a way of life."

Parsons said ROTC required that she maintain a 2.5 grade point average to contract, or move forward to become an officer.

"When I started, my GPA was getting closer to NOT making it so I had to learn to work," she said. About the same time, Parsons began taking psychology classes, and was surprised that she also had a passion for the science.

"It was really work when I started, because I started late and had to take classes out of order," said Parsons, who now calls herself a "psychology geek." She credits MSU psychology professor Keith Hutchison with helping her catch up. She is now earning A's in her major and has pulled her GPA up to a 3.7 and has made the MSU honor roll several semesters in a row.

"Heather is a fantastic student, is well organized, works very well with others, and is a responsible and mature individual," Hutchison said. "I do not know if these qualities have emerged through her experience in the ROTC or if, instead, these preexisting qualities underlie her success in both the ROTC and our psychology program."

Parsons said that psychology and a military career fit well together. She said her training in psychology helped her get through the competitive LDAC training held last summer in Fort Lewis, Wash. Lt. Col. West concurs.

"She stood out there," he said. "She was able to take what learned in ROTC, coupled with techniques she had been taught in psychology department, to succeed in a very competitive situation."

After graduation, Parsons will be a chemical officer with the famed 10th Mountain Division stationed in Fort Drum, N.Y., the irony of which is not lost on the girl from Browning who got into shape for last summer by hiking in Glacier Park near her home.

Parsons hopes that she will be deployed to Afghanistan from Fort Drum, which would be "a big career boost." She would also like the opportunity to earn a master's degree in psychology one day. Her ideal future assignment would be with the Army's Psychological Operations, or Psy Ops.

Parsons said that she knows that ROTC isn't for everyone, but without it and its structure, she wonders if she would still be in college. She said she is proof that it can provide great opportunities for students from all backgrounds.

Burns, who nominated Parsons for a Woodrow Wilson Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship for minority students because of her excellence, said he marvels at her transformation at MSU. Heather was also selected for the Department of Native American Studies' "Phyllis Berger Award for Leadership," which she will receive during the upcoming American Indian Council Pow Wow.

"From an uncertain, often floundering sophomore she has become a determined, focused and driven young lady who exudes confidence," Burns said.

Jim Burns (406) 994-4880, jburns@montana.edu