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Treated Like a Rat, He Emerges an Altruist

Admission essay by Justin Sells / United States Military Academy, West Point

Photograph by Diana Levine

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” Those words, spoken by motivational speaker Eric Thomas, drove me after I was rejected by West Point when I applied as a high school senior. I did not lose my focus, my resolve, or my commitment to attend West Point because I wanted to serve our country and become a civil rights advocate. 

Following the route of General George S. Patton, who attended West Point after a year at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I went to VMI. VMI is an institution known for its challenging first-year experience, known as the “ratline,” its sexist history (United States v. Virginia), and its military support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. As an African American cadet, I had to come to grips with VMI’s past and the constant reminders on its campus that glorified supporters of slavery. For example, as a “rat,” I was required to salute the statue of Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (prior to its removal)—a Confederate officer who taught at VMI and who believed that African Americans were incapable of becoming disciplined soldiers. I was also required to participate in an annual celebration of the ten VMI cadets who died for the Confederacy in the “Field of Lost Shoes” during the Battle of New Market.

My VMI experience was grueling. I was forbidden to use pronouns such as “I,” “me,” or “we,” and instead, could only identify myself as “this rat” when referring to myself, or “these rats” when referring to my fellow freshman cadets. I was consistently summoned by upperclassmen at 11:30 p.m. on school nights to endure brutal physical workouts. Moreover, I needed permission to eat meals, could not talk outside, possess a cell phone, use social media, or listen to music. Each day of the “ratline,” I was told to quit, that I was too stupid, too undisciplined, and that I would never make it at VMI. 

Despite these challenges, I earned one of the highest grade-point averages in my class, attaining a 4.00 in my major and a 3.79 cumulatively, received several academic awards, and was qualified to join the Institute Honors Program and receive an Army ROTC Scholarship. My success at VMI was my own defiant salute to “Stonewall” Jackson’s statue, as well as my sincere salute to all those who fought and died for civil rights in this country. I wanted them to know that their sacrifice was not in vain, and I wanted “Stonewall” Jackson to know that he was wrong. Ultimately, my performance at VMI—an institution saturated in inequality—propelled me to West Point and was my first step towards becoming a civil rights attorney.

My experience at VMI taught me to fight for myself so that I could fight for others. In furthering that goal, I tried out for and made the West Point Boxing Team my freshman year. I trained alongside the team’s national champions, and helped us win the National Collegiate Boxing Association’s 2017–2018 National Championship. Although I take pride in this achievement, my grades suffered dearly. I practiced anywhere from two to four hours daily, taking blows to the head and body, and still had to manage West Point’s academic and military rigors. The toll on my mind and body, combined with the demands of West Point, led to subpar academic performances during my freshman and sophomore years. I decided to give up boxing in order to improve my grades because my ultimate goal of becoming a civil rights attorney was more important.

To that end, I redirected my efforts to becoming a Senior Writing Fellow for the West Point Writing Program. I studied a diverse range of writings and rhetorical disciplines, as well as served over seventy hours as a writing consultant to better the writing of cadets of all graduating classes and academic majors. Through the program, I learned the truth of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” I can have a greater positive impact on the lives of others through writing, communicating, and litigating than I can through physical violence. My decision to give up boxing proved to be the correct one. In fact, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, I earned the best grades of my academic career at West Point.

While my experiences at West Point taught me the importance of living by the seven Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—all qualities that I will contribute to the learning environment of Boston College Law School—the inspirational words of Eric Thomas still guide me. My drive to help people like Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and George Floyd receive fair and equal justice is relentless. I will not stop pursuing this mission until our society makes it safe for people like them to breathe without fear of discrimination or injustice.