"We are growing into an impressive unit," said Air Force Lt. Col. (retired) Erik Pettyjohn, senior aerospace science instructor at the school.
The Air Force JROTC is primarily a leadership training and aerospace science program for high school students. The unit has grown from 75 cadets in the fall of 2014 to 180 cadets this year. It also has a 72-member drill team that practices four days per week in the new West Aurora High School fieldhouse.
Having students involved in community service activities is one of the key components of JROTC, said Pettyjohn. He said the cadets are on pace to complete an estimated 2,000 hours of community service by the end of the school year, including volunteering at the Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva. The cadet program organized this year's Veterans Day assembly at the school as well.
"The goal of the program is to develop citizens of character and providing service back to your community is part of that," he said.
Pettyjohn said West Aurora High School was ready to have an Air Force JROTC program by 2014.
"Students were hungry for it," he said. "You know it is a strong program when cadets are leading and organizing the program."
Pettyjohn and Master Sgt. Ken Schubert are the two faculty members that oversee the program. The unit has authorization from the Air Force in the future to hire a third instructor which could increase enrollment to 210 or 220 cadets. Until then, the program will be capped at 180 students, Pettyjohn said.
"We have a waiting list of students that want to come in," he said.
Pettyjohn said in just three years he's seen how the program has positively impacted students.
"I saw students who were reluctant about joining and graduated as leaders in the program," he said.
West Aurora High School seniors Evelyn Torres, Jordan Johnson and Carolina Valenzula will graduate next year knowing they had leadership roles in getting the JROTC program started.
Johnson said he was swept into the JROTC through the drill team. This year, he's the commander of the West Aurora Blackhawks Drill Team, in charge of 72 cadets that represents multiple teams for girls and boys.
"ROTC made the person I am today," Johnson said.
Johnson said the self-discipline required in drill team "brought out the leadership side of him."
"I started out as a freshman not doing well in school when there was no program. I used to talk a lot in class and that would get me in trouble and off focus and my grades were dropping," he said.
Torres has the highest position as the group commander responsible for the entire 180 cadets in the corps. She said the self-discipline to do well in school was always there for her. However, the training and education in JROTC strengthened her abilities to be able to lead others.
"I like being able to motivate others and help them become citizens of character," Torres said. "It's a great feeling at the end of each day knowing we are making a difference in the lives of our cadets and students."
Torres is also president of West Aurora High's National Honors Society.
Valenzula is a squadron commander responsible for 20 cadets. Valenzula said she was encouraged to join the program through a friend.
"My mom was reluctant thinking I would have to enlist in the military, but we as cadets are not obligated after high school to join the military. For me it wouldn't be a problem," she said.
"As a freshman I wasn't involved in anything at school. When I joined the ROTC, it opened so many opportunities for me. I started volunteering for community service activities and became a personnel commander in my sophomore year. We are all in this together," she said.
Linda Girardi is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News