“The healthful and pleasant abode of a crowd of honorable youths pressing up the hill of science with noble emulation, a gratifying spectacle an honor to our country and our state, objects of honest pride to their instructors and fair specimens of citizen soldiers, attached to their native state, proud of her fame and ready in every time of deepest peril to vindicate her honor or defend her rights.” (Col. J T L Preston).
This inscription on the parapet at VMI captures the spirit of this historic Virginia military academy – namely, honor, integrity, and the cultivation of citizen-soldiers. In early May, Director of Communications Sara Kennedy had the privilege of interviewing 2014 Veritas graduate Tripp Fitch. This is a summary of their conversation.
When all the props are pulled out, who am I? What can I handle? Am I prepared for the challenge ahead?
Every Veritas graduate faces these questions in one form or another. For 2014 alum Tripp Fitch, he needed these questions answered every morning as he woke up as an infamous Virginia Military Institute “rat”.
According to VMI, “the purpose of the ratline is to teach self-control, self-discipline, time-management, and followership as prerequisites for becoming a VMI cadet.” Rats are reminded of their status on campus by older cadets, who “require [them] to walk at attention in Barracks along a prescribed line (hence the name ratline), obey stringent regulations, strain (assume an exaggerated position of attention), or drop for pushups if found deficient in any way by an upper-class cadet while in Barracks. Rats must memorize a book called the ‘Rat Bible’, which contains, in addition to vital information about the VMI system, the history of the Institute and the names of the cadets who were killed at the Battle of New Market.”
VMI cadets, particularly “rats”, have very little downtime. Up and dressed in the appropriate day’s uniform well before 7 AM, the day is packed with formation, inspection, classes, formal study hours, meals, exercise, marching, uniform changes, service to others and additional duties as assigned. Tight bonds are formed early, as “rats” learn to lean on and trust one another.
“Hell Week” and “Sweat Parties” are also part of the annual tradition for the ratline. Each serves to “render incoming cadets equally lowly, then build them back up into a class with internal cohesion and unity.”
Everyone who had the privilege of teaching or coaching Tripp at Veritas knows he is a hard-worker and a team player. He likes routine, structure, rules and consistency. In many ways, as I learned through our interview, VMI is an ideal place for him to continue to grow as a student, an athlete and a Christian.
But while VMI might be a great fit, it has not been an easy year. During some of the more grueling physical, spiritual and emotional challenges this past year, Tripp reflected on his time at Veritas, replaying engaging classroom discussions about great books, track meets with his best friends, and most importantly, reflecting on who he is in Christ. “I learned this year that I could function on little sleep. That I can do more than I ever thought possible, that it really matters what kind of person I am, that all of life comes down to relationships and most importantly, that I need a daily walk with Christ.”
Rather than choosing the reportedly easier teachers, Tripp has chosen those with more rigorous reputations, after all, he points out “you go to school to learn.” In addition to maintaining strong academics (he has a 4.0 GPA), Tripp also wants to re-create a model he learned at Veritas – intentionally building “stretch” relationships with those who are more mature in their faith and field of study (in his case, Mr. Trumbo and Dr. Dicken), seeking deep relationships with peers and looking for ways to disciple and assist those who are younger in their faith.
Throughout the difficulties of the year, God has been proven faithful. As a pre-med candidate with an intended Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, Tripp is in the care of the Chemistry Department – led, providentially, by the staff member who heads the Navigators ministry on campus. A host family from a local church has warmly welcomed him into their home after Sunday services and deep friendships have formed with brother “rats”.
From his new vantage point, a long and stretching year out of high school, Tripp hopes those coming behind him at Veritas take advantage of the guidance and care of the faculty, to realize the difficult writing assignments, the senior thesis, the focus on primary sources and more are incredible preparation for college and to be encouraged that they will not regret one moment spent truly learning how to study and to write well.
Like many of our graduates, Tripp also understands in a new way what it is to make his faith his own – to know what he believes and why. “Read your Bible every day – strengthen your faith now and be prepared to answer; honestly, I was not completely prepared.” While Veritas offers great theological studies and students read some of the most foundational books in Christian history, classes are taught by those who deeply love God, and expect that students are exploring and growing in their faith too. Moving into a fully secular environment, where every day brings physical, mental and emotional challenges, Tripp needed to be ready to answer skeptics – even on the hardest days. He welcomes the Veritas community to join his family and church in praying for him as he continues to grow as a witness for Christ at VMI.
Finally, he counsels: “Get involved in something outside of class that is significant.” Whether sports or service or artistic endeavors, a well-rounded student is prepared for life after Veritas – and will be an asset to their next community of learning.
What a privilege to spend an hour with this gifted and disciplined young man reflecting on life at Veritas, and the challenges and opportunities unfolding as a cadet at VMI. We pray God’s continuing mercy and grace in Tripp’s life, as he navigates a demanding social, spiritual and academic environment.
Tripp with his parents, Rob and Heather Fitch, at VMI