More than 700 incoming Aggie freshmen from across the country and beyond descended upon the Duncan Dining Hall on Wednesday to begin their journeys as members of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets.
"Today is the culmination of two-plus years of recruiting," said Col. Sam Hawes, assistant commandant of recruiting for the Corps. Hawes called the Corps "the heartbeat of Texas A&M" and expressed excitement "about the men and women in this group of students. They are excited about being Aggies and being in the Corps."
Immediately upon entering the dining hall, students and their families were temporarily separated as current cadets guided the cadets-to-be through registration paperwork and apparel gathering. Members of the Texas Aggie Corps of Cadets Association lined up to greet parents, guardians and other family members and provide insight into the journey on which their student was preparing to embark.
Hawes said precise numbers about the class would be available around the first day of school, as it is common for other students to join throughout the orientation week. He anticipated about 20 percent of the incoming students are from out of state, with California residents making up the largest non-Texas contingent. Three incoming cadets from Vietnam were en route "on the same flight" and would arrive in Texas tonight, Hawes said.
Nathan Johnson, 10, quickly obtained a hat representing his older brother Ryan's new company, Company G-1, the Ramblin' Rogues.
"I've been crying for joy and for sadness," said Nathan, a regular actor in his school's plays, as he stood next to his mother, Wendy. The duo were waiting for Ryan and brother Logan, who is "almost 13."
"I'm really excited that he'll be getting a new job engineering, but I'm sad that he's leaving," Nathan said of his brother. Ryan said he signed up for the Corps because "the sense of community" he felt as a member of his high school's band is something he anticipates being able to find through the Corps.
Though Ryan Johnson will not be in the Aggie Band, he said he is looking forward to football games and feels "nervous" about the upcoming week of training and orientation.
Wendy Johnson, an Aggie and the director of instruction at Cypress Woods High School near Houston, said her son is "carrying on a legacy," as her father and brother-in-law have military backgrounds.
"Pride," she responded when asked how it felt to watch her son prepare to become a cadet.
Dozens of Corps of Cadets association volunteers roamed through the hall to engage with parents and families. Marsha Backof said she had talked with families from New York, Kansas and Florida throughout the day, and that she volunteered because she "loves the fellowship and meeting new people."
"I love giving 'em a big Texas 'Howdy,' " she said with a smile, and added that she was encouraged by how many families and students had asked her about churches.
Backof's husband, Alan, graduated as a member of the Corps and the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band in the class of 1968.
"I just got to see some of the guys who were in the band back in the day. It's good to do this, welcome the new cadets, and it's good to be in service to my university," he said.
One of the hundreds of cadets assisting with registration and move-in was Sabrina Korioth, a rising A&M senior from Katy. She held down the check-out station with two fellow cadets. "Once I press confirm, they are officially in the Corps," she said.
She and the other two upperclassmen cadets reflected on "how quickly" the time had gone by since their respective orientation weeks. "It's mind-blowing, the experiences I've had here. It doesn't compare to any other time in my life," she said.
"The lessons I've learned here -- perseverance, camaraderie, teamwork and leadership -- you can get one or two of those other places, but in the Corps you get all of that at once," Korioth said.
She added that people on the outside looking in may not realize how hard the Corps members work to support one another.
"We work with our people, counsel them on career readiness and their future. ... We try and push each other," she said.
Hawes said about 20 percent of the incoming class are women, a number "consistent with the last few years" but much higher than a decade ago.
Hawes said the Corps grew from approximately 1,850 cadets in the mid-2000s to more than 2,500 last year. Hawes said the recruiting office employs a variety of tactics for its efforts, including "Spend the Night with the Corps," an event recurring throughout the year at which high school juniors and seniors, as well as transfer students, have an opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse into Corps life.
Franklin Afenkhena and his family drove in from Round Rock as he begins his cadet career. His father, Frank, called it a "six-month journey" for his son, who plans to major in electrical engineering. Nicole, Franklin's mother, said Wednesday was her first opportunity to interact with current cadets and see her son's future life up close.
"It's overwhelming. Frank did most of the prep work. There's a lot of lingo to learn, and I was educated today," she said with a laugh. "He's my first son, and now I'm handing him over. I brought my tissues."
Franklin Afenkhena said he looks forward to working hard at his studies and thinks his time in the Corps, and in the Aggie Band, will help him become a better leader.
"I want to prove my character, learn more discipline and reform myself. I believe I will make friends who I can cherish memories with over my four years," he said.