Syracuse University rower Madeleine Gordon grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, a 20-minute drive from the Norwalk River and home to some of the best rowing clubs in the country. Gordon was unfamiliar with rowing in high school, but as captain of her wrestling, field hockey and lacrosse teams, she was no stranger to competition.
Although college recruiters approached her to play field hockey, Gordon had a different path in mind: the U.S. military. “I talked to a few coaches, but I was considering not doing college at all and enlisting.” Gordon was concerned about the cost of college, and the opportunity to serve her country was important to her. “I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the military—that it's not for the smartest people, it's not for somebody who wants a big career—but I think it’s the exact opposite,” she says. “We need people who are intelligent and ambitious—we need people who are career-driven.”
Gordon had all but ruled out being able to afford a college degree, but that changed when a recruiter suggested the possibility of a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship . ROTC is a leadership training program that prepares college students for service as an officer the U.S. military on active duty or in the Reserves/National Guard across a variety of careers. “It opened the door to a whole new opportunity for me. I've always loved school, so having the chance to go to college was one of the best gifts of my life,” says Gordon, who was selected for ROTC scholarships in the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Gordon had been active in foreign language studies throughout high school, earning multiple awards for excellence in Chinese language. Her interests made the Army a more natural fit. “The Army offers more opportunities than any other pipeline in the world,” she says. The next step for Gordon was to decide where she wanted to apply her scholarship. “I had my scholarship assigned initially to a few other schools. Then I visited, and I didn't really feel like they were a fit.” That changed after she arrived in Central New York. “I don't really have any other better way to describe it, but I just felt so right here.” Gordon is now pursuing a double major in Arabic and Chinese in the College of Arts and Sciences , with minors in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies.
Syracuse University’s ROTC program—the nation’s longest consecutively running program of its kind—was the main factor in her decision to choose Syracuse. The University’s commitment to military-connected students has been a central part of its mission for nearly a century, and Gordon felt it right away. That commitment is visible in the National Veteran’s Resource Center at the Daniel and Gayle D’Aniello Building, a state-of-the-art facility that will serve as a new home for the ROTC program.
The support for military-connected students is also felt in less visible ways. For instance, Gordon says, most of her ROTC classmates are scholarship recipients, whereas, by comparison, other schools draw only a handful of scholarship recipients. “We're attracting the best-of-the-best here because of the resources we have,” she says. “Syracuse also does something unique for four-year scholarship or three-year scholarship recipients: They pick up your room and board. That was a very big incentive.”
When she arrived on campus in 2019, she was a state champion wrestler without a sport. That changed after a rowing team tryout, where she was one of several dozen hopefuls. Gordon was invited to walk on, and she fell in love with the team and the sport.
“One of the reasons I've stuck with rowing is because it’s a sport that will absolutely impact who I am in the future,” she says. “I'm really big on accountability, and when you’re rowing, all that's in front of you is the screen with the numbers that you're pulling—no one's getting that number lower than you.” Rowing has also taught her lessons in accountability to others. “It requires you to have a focus and kind of selflessness when you're in a boat, because it's that synchrony with the other people you're rowing with that makes the boat go faster.” Gordon sees many parallels between rowing and her leadership training in ROTC. “Rowing highlights the teamwork aspect that you see in the military,” she says. “The team, the accountability, the integrity—they fold in nicely with each other.”
Gordon credits both the ROTC commanders and the rowing coaches for enabling her to find this sport while chasing her dreams of service in the U.S. Army. “Between the two commitments, I’ve faced a lot of scheduling conflicts, and they have been extraordinarily willing to work through them,” she says. “I am so grateful for that because my ROTC cadre could easily have said, ‘No, you can't do rowing. It conflicts with this, and that, and PT, and you're going to be tired.’” Gordon’s ROTC chain of command has not only tolerated her participation in rowing but encouraged it. Gordon says rowing is the perfect sport for an officer in training, as both a lesson in self-development and in how to lead others. “I can't imagine my life without rowing now.”