ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Back-to-school season is approaching, and the number of college students over the age of 24 has nearly doubled since the 1970s. The nation's military academies have seen a similar shift - a growing number of older cadets alongside those who are fresh out of high school. Elissa Nadworny from NPR's Ed team visited the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, and there, she spoke with older cadets about the challenges they faced competing physically and academically with teenage classmates.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: They call them priors because they've had prior experience before enrolling here. Most have enlisted or deployed. Some have worked or traveled. And the number of priors on campus is rising. This year, it's about 1 in 10.
BRIAN R KELLY: I'm Cadet First Class Brian R. Kelly.
NADWORNY: At 26, Brian is the oldest cadet at the academy. He's tall and muscular in fatigues and a black beret, watching the freshmen complete a summer rite of passage, the assault course.
KELLY: Let's go, Overby. Don't give up.
NADWORNY: Cadets are crawling through the sand under barbed wire...
KELLY: If I do not see your face in the dirt and you touch my barb wire again, I will send you back.
NADWORNY: ...Running through mud pits and doing hundreds of pushups.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)
NADWORNY: When Kelly did this course as a basic cadet, he was five years older than his classmates.
KELLY: Two days into basic training here, I wanted to leave.
NADWORNY: Kelly had enlisted in the Air Force after high school, so when he came to the academy at 23, he'd already done basic training.
KELLY: A freshman who's fresh out of high school, has never been away from home is different from a freshman that's 26 or 35 or however old they may be. They're in a different place in life.
NADWORNY: On active duty in the Air Force, he'd worked as an air traffic controller, one of the most challenging jobs. He recalls commiserating with other priors that first year.
KELLY: What are we doing here right now? We're all 22, 23, you know, had a car, had a house, you know, had a dog, and now we're here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right, halt.
NADWORNY: Here, where there are rules and rules and more rules and early wake-ups and lots of crawling through the mud with someone yelling at you.
MONICA CALLAN: Let's go, Charlie Flight. Hurry up.
NADWORNY: Monica Callan is another prior in her senior year. She's the captain of a group of about 30 new cadets.
CALLAN: Lock it up, all right - no talking.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Yes, Ma'am.
NADWORNY: She remembers what it was like to be a new cadet. She'd had previous military experience as an enlisted pharmacy technician, and that put her leaps ahead of her 18-year-old counterparts.
CALLAN: OK, I have this experience. I know how to do this. So I need to help them out.
NADWORNY: She quickly became a model for her squadron. Leading was natural for her. She grew up in the Bronx, the oldest of six kids. She was only 22, but she knew how to lace up her boots the right way, to address her superiors, to hustle. The nicknames followed - Mama Callan or, my favorite, Momica. The hard part for her was in the fall when the academics started.
CALLAN: Wow. I don't remember what valence electrons are.
NADWORNY: For many of the priors, it's been years since they took a math or science class.
CALLAN: A lot of my classmates who were four or five years younger than me were helping me out in classes because that stuff was fresh in their mind, whereas I was just proud that I could remember just little bits of information.
ALEX WILLIAMS: Once the school year hit - definitely switched around, where they were the ones motivating me to (laughter) get through class.
NADWORNY: Prior Alex Williams was rusty on his calculus, but jumping out of an airplane from more than 10,000 feet - no big deal.
WILLIAMS: So if you guys keep that form when you guys exit the plane, it's going to be awesome. It's going to be money the whole time.
NADWORNY: I find Williams at the airfield. He's helping teach cadets to skydive using a harness dangling from the ceiling. It's an activity he knows well. He'll complete his 537th jump next week.
WILLIAMS: All right. We'll get you strapped in here. There it is. And you're flying.
NADWORNY: Williams enlisted in the Air Force right after high school, and he served in the honor guard in Washington, D.C. That meant funerals in Arlington Cemetery and foreign visits at the White House and the Pentagon.
WILLIAMS: It was definitely great that I had an experience before I came here. I think that gave me a different perspective on the place, helped me stay motivated when things got hard.
NADWORNY: And three years later, he's on track to graduate with his bachelor's, and he'll be a lieutenant in the Air Force. Williams gives a lot of credit to his posse of priors. Just last week, he gave a tutorial to a bunch of new cadets. He noticed a few of them had been prior enlisted. So what did he do?
WILLIAMS: Grabbed them by the chest strap and told them not to quit (laughter).
NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, at the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: They say that in the Air Force...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The coffee's mighty fine.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: ...The coffee's mighty fine.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It looks like muddy water.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: It looks like muddy water.
SHAPIRO: This story was a collaboration with the education reporting project The Hechinger Report.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, Lord, I want to go.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Oh, Lord, I want to go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But they won't let me go.
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