Leadership and legacy: The Citadel’s panel discussion reflects on 25 Years of Female Cadet Graduates

Photo: The Citadel provost moderates a panel with female alumnae. From left to right: Sally Selden, Ph.D.; Tiziana Ortega; Bailey Richardson; Lt. Col. Mary Thornton; Laura Curran.

The Citadel held its first event to celebrate 25 Years of Female Cadet Graduates on Tuesday, January 30. The panel, moderated by Sally Selden, Ph.D., SPHR, provost of The Citadel, covered diverse topics ranging from the panelists’ experiences as female cadets to the advice they would offer to young women considering joining the Corps of Cadets.

The panel included four distinguished guests: U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mary Thornton, ’05, Laura Curran, ’09, Bailey Richardson, ’20, and Cadet Tiziana Ortega, ’24. The diversity of class years — spanning nearly two decades — and career paths added additional depth to the discussion.

The Citadel President, Gen. Glenn M. Walters, USMC (Ret.), ‘79, kicked off the event.

“Today, approximately 13% of each class are women, and that number continues to grow as more and more women embrace the academic and leadership challenges that await them here,” said Walters. “Every year the remarkable women in the Corps reach numerous new milestones.”

“I’ve witnessed firsthand some extraordinary women at The Citadel. I’ve been impressed with everything they have achieved academically and outside the classroom. They truly embody the spirit of leadership and resilience that we value at The Citadel,” said Selden, as she introduced the panelists.

Some of the panelists found The Citadel during high school, but Curran knew from the seventh grade that she wanted the challenge the military school offered. Now, Curran serves as the Associate Director of Admissions at The Citadel and offers sound advice for anyone thinking of attending.

“I truly believe anyone who’s looking to better themselves, expects more of themselves, or wants to see what they are capable of, The Citadel is a place that they need to be looking at. We want to recruit people who expect more — we aren’t ordinary here, and if you want to see how high you can achieve, The Citadel is doable,” stated Curran. “Know your why, keep a hold of that, and keep moving forward. The band of sisterhood is an amazing thing, and The Citadel will grow you into the leader you want to be.”

Curran graduated from The Citadel in 2009. During her time as a cadet, she was the first undergraduate female physical education major and the captain of the women’s soccer team her junior and senior years. She is currently The Citadel’s women’s rugby coach.

Each panelist also shared personal challenges they faced at The Citadel and how they overcame them. While responses varied, one answer was shared among each woman — they persisted because of the help from those around them.

“Everyone at The Citadel has something personal going on. One thing that helped me get through challenges was my classmates being there for me, and me being there for them,” said Richardson.

Thornton, the only panelist with a military background, discussed how The Citadel influenced her leadership style in the Army Air Defense Artillery. She reflected on the transition from The Citadel to the Army — where she was once again one of the few females she worked with.

 “You go from here, being one of the few females, then to a male-dominated branch. There weren’t many women I had to look up to, so I am very comfortable being the only woman in the room and owning it,” Thornton said. “The Citadel taught me how to survive and thrive — you wouldn’t get this type of training anywhere.”

Thornton’s extensive military background includes deployments to South Korea, Afghanistan and Germany. Just a few of her military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Media, National Defense Service Medal and NATO medal.

Richardson, the first female Star of the West Scholarship recipient, a Class of 2020 graduate and the Regimental Executive Officer during her senior year, spoke to how The Citadel prepared her for medical school and instilled resilience to effectively handle challenges.

“Medical school is very hard, and I’ve learned you aren’t the smartest person in the room. It’s overwhelming. It’s just like knob year — you are drinking from a fire hose. I remember feeling less stressed than others and thinking it could be worse. The Citadel prepared me for how to deal with hardship and be productive,” said Richardson.

As a legacy whose father graduated in 1995 — the year before women arrived on campus for the first time — Richardson recounted how her father and his all-male classmates embraced her decision to attend The Citadel.

“When I decided I wanted to go, his friends embraced me going. People that he knew, that probably weren’t originally the biggest advocates of women at The Citadel, became my biggest supporters. That warmed my heart to know that’s all it takes — people knowing a woman who goes to The Citadel to know they belong and that they are an asset to the institution.”

Ortega, the only current cadet on the panel, shared her perspective as a member of the Class of 2024. She serves as the executive officer for Mike Company and is the President for both the Supply Chain Club and the Circle of Women on campus. She was asked near the end of the panel discussion, after hearing from three other incredible women who had earned their Band of Gold from The Citadel, what resonated with her most.

“They did it, and they believe in other women who can do it as well. Hearing that no matter what’s going on in your life, it can be done, and things will get better — you will see improvement from where you started,” said Ortega. She thanked each panelist for paving the road for countless other women.

While discussing the changes over the past 25 years, Thornton, who was the earliest graduate of The Citadel, said the changes seen have been for the best.

“We are sought after as an institution, and we want to be. We want to keep up with the nation. It’s great that we have more academic programs, and I hope we continue to thrive in that way,” said Thornton.

Future celebrations for 25 Years of Female Cadet Graduates will include a parade on Friday, March 1, welcoming all female cadet graduates back to campus to be honored and recognized for their accomplishments. More details on events for the March 1 weekend will be announced soon.