Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy: A High School Leadership Opportunity

Thanks to Emmalyn O’Connor for contributing this article on the USMC Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy. O’Connor is a senior in high school, Commanding Officer of her NJROTC unit, an NROTC Marine Option Scholarship recipient, and a class of 2017 graduate of the USMC Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy.

What is the summer leadership and character development academy?

The Marine Corps Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy is a week-long camp held at Camp Upshur, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. The program is highly competitive; this year, 196 students will be selected to attend. There is no cost to the program; plane tickets will be covered as well. The application deadline is April 1st. We had the unique opportunity to meet Marine Corps leaders and Holocaust survivors this year. The platoon commanders and platoon sergeants of the Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy are all Marines from reserve units around the country. Their civilian jobs range from FBI agents and Secret Service agents to police officers and financial advisors.

Program Requirements

  • Applicants must be between 16-18 years of age and have completed their sophomore or junior year of high school.
  • Applicants must have a minimum 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale
  • Participation in sports, leadership or community service.

In addition to these program requirements, applicants are required to submit a full body photo (professional attire or a JROTC dress uniform if applicable), one reference letter, a high school transcript and a completed Initial Strength Test (IST) form. The IST consists of 2-minute crunches, pull-ups (males), flexed arm hang (females) and a 1 ½ mile run. When I submitted my application, I did 100 crunches (max), a 50 second flexed arm hang, and around a 12:30 1 ½ mile.

Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy
Poolees take an initial strength test

First Impressions

Students arrive for check-in at the National Marine Corps Museum in Triangle, VA. Those who arrive early in the morning are given the opportunity to explore the museum while waiting for the rest of the student’s arrival. Afterward, you are bussed to Camp Upshur where you will be “greeted” by the academy’s staff. You will also be issued uniforms and bedding for the week.

There is no guarantee that the program’s schedule will include the same events as last year’s, but I imagine it will be very similar. On the first day, we went to Officer Candidates School and did a modified version of the Confidence Course. As someone who had never done anything remotely like this, I was a bit nervous. My platoon was tasked with the monkey bars first. When it came to my turn, I only made it halfway through on my first attempt because I didn’t have enough momentum. This was extremely embarrassing to me, but I tried it again and finished with quarter-sized rips on my hands. Fortunately, the corpsman was able to sufficiently wrap my hands and I was able to tackle the rest of the course along with my platoon. The course truly does instill confidence; my platoon and I felt on top of the world afterward.

summer leadership and character development academy
Students at the summer leadership and character development academy practice the overhead bars at MCB Quantico.

That same day, we visited the Marine Corps helicopter squadron responsible for the transportation of the President, Vice President, and other DOD officials: HMX-1. After learning a brief history of the squadron, we visited the hangar bay and climbed atop a V-22 Osprey.

summer leadership and character development academy
SLCDA gives you the opportunity to make lasting friendships from students all over the country. Pictured here is my battle buddy from St. Louis, MO and myself in front of a V-22 Osprey.


Leaders from the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) paid the academy a visit. After a brief demonstration of a few advanced moves, the students were able to try some basic moves out for themselves. Personally, I drew many similarities from the martial art I have experience practicing, Combat Hapkido. My favorite part about MCMAP was the leadership “tie-in” (essentially a leadership lesson) after we trained.

A student from SLCDA 2017 participates in a take-down demonstration.

Leadership Evaluations

Some events of the summer leadership and character development academy are modeled after Officer Candidates School. We students participated in a Leadership Reaction Course (LRC). I was the student platoon sergeant at the time; my job was to essentially delegate each task to a student in my platoon based off of what I knew about their knowledge and skill set. These tasks required prompt decision-making skills and most were timed events. Your Marine platoon commander and platoon sergeant will pay close attention to how you react to each event; so it is important to remember that the wrong decision is better than no decision.

Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy
A squad of students maneuvers obstacles as they attempt to evacuate a simulated casualty during a modified leadership reaction course at the Marine Corps Recruiting Command’s Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy (SLCDA) here, July 23.

Following a class on leadership ethics, we participated in a PRAC APP (practical application) called the Field Leadership Ethics Exercise (FLEE).

In short, our scenario consisted of aiding starving civilians‒some of which were hostile‒we had to make decisions, such as who to trust, based on what we learned in our ethics class. During the first rotation (which lasted about 15 minutes), the whole platoon argued back and forth. It was chaos. By the third rotation, everything flowed smoothly, we were able to communicate properly, and there were no “fatalities.”


The physical fitness aspect of the summer leadership and character development academy was moderately challenging, in my opinion. We only had PT in the morning twice, one being an introductory PT, and the second being another IST. The day before graduation, every platoon participated in the “platoon challenge,” which was a timed event.

Summer Leadership and Character Development Academy
Bravo 3 during the platoon challenge

Obstacles were scattered throughout the camp; student platoon sergeants were responsible for navigating their platoons to the next event. Some events included completing the O Course as a platoon for time, while some required the entire platoon to complete a total of 100 pull-ups. Afterward, the summer leadership and character development academy staff exemplified servant leadership by serving the students breakfast. This was a fun and memorable way to end the week.

The Holocaust Museum, Washington D.C., and the Sunset Parade

We traveled off base and spent a day in D.C. First, all platoons went on a guided tour of the Holocaust Museum. It was truly an unforgettable experience. I will never forget the tears in my Marine Platoon Sergeant’s eyes when we walked through the room that contained all of the shoes.

Many of those shoes were small: they were the shoes of a child. This affected him personally because he had two kids back at home. After the tours, we entered an auditorium and listened to a Holocaust survivor’s story. This was one of the most humbling things I’ve ever had the chance to experience.

The “shoes” exhibit.

After visiting the Holocaust Museum, we split into groups and toured D.C. My group decided to see the Declaration of Independence, the White House, the WWII, Korean, and Vietnam War memorials. Finally, we were treated to the Sunset Parade, which took place at the Marine Corps War Memorial. At the end of the parade, I was asked to march the platoon from the memorial to the busses nearby. Knowing that there was a Brigadier General and other high-ranking Marines nearby, I said “Yes, sir!” smiling on the inside.

Sunset parade color guard

Motivational speakers

My favorite speaker was Navy Cross Recipient Chief Warrant Officer 3 Anthony Viggiani. I remember him walking down the aisle in the classroom, and instantly feeling motivated. This man rescued his men from a cave of snipers, took a bullet to the leg, and still continued to fight, “I made a promise to my men, and I’ll be damned if I don’t keep it” he said. I also recall him saying that while receiving the Navy Cross was an honor, it was “Just a ribbon and medal.”

Sometime during the week, we traveled to the main part of the base and listened to a speech from former Deputy Commandant Lieutenant General Bailey two weeks before he retired. He was extremely personable and tried to answer all of our questions.

Lastly, a member of the Travis Manion Foundation (TMF) visited us and spoke about First Lieutenant Travis Manion, a US Naval Academy graduate. During Travis’s first stay at home, he and his brother-in-law attended an Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field. As they were leaving the stadium, Travis’ brother-in-law joked with Travis that if he tripped him and broke his leg, Travis would not have to return to Iraq and could stay home in Doylestown. Travis turned to him and said, “Hey Dave, if not me, then who?” Travis Manion was later killed in action on April 29th, 2007.

Cleaning the grave of a US Army veteran

I highly recommend summer leadership and character development academy to any current high school sophomore/junior who is looking for a challenging leadership experience. This academy is comparable to the Service Academies’ Summer Seminars. It’s also a great resume builder; my platoon from 2017 has several successful graduates. We have two appointed to the Naval Academy, one appointed to West Point, one enlisted in the Army, one enlisted in the Air Force, one enlisted in the Marine Corps, and I have received the NROTC Marine Option Scholarship. During my officer interview, I drew a lot of my leadership experience answers from summer leadership and character development academy.

Again, I highly recommend this program. High school sophomores and juniors: do it. Just apply! You won’t regret it.

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