Austin Welch ’11, the First Captain of the U.S. Military Academy’s Corps of Cadets, spoke to more than 260 people at the Culver Club of Chicago’s event at the Union League Club on April 8.
April 17, 2015

Welch, whose hometown is nearby Winnetka, Ill., is responsible for the overall performance of the approximately 4,400-member Corps of Cadets. Welch’s position is similar to a student body president. His duties include implementing a class agenda and acting as a liaison between the Corps and the administration. In addition, Welch is at the top of a pyramid of cadet commanders who make up the chain-of-command for the Corps of Cadets.

He follows in the footsteps of other notable First Captains such as John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and William Westmoreland. He is the second Culver Military Academy graduate in recent years to serve as First Captain. Charlie Phelps ’08 led the Corps in 2011-2012.

A management major, Welch said he “made a significant commitment to my future at the ripe old age of 12” when he entered into a deal with his dad. His father would pay the boarding school education and Welch would pay for college.

Starting his talk, he asked, “How do you survive and thrive at a challenging place like West Point, or an Ivy League school, or any of the colleges and universities we send students to every year?

“The answer is simple: It’s Culver. The Culver difference. What’s the bang for your buck? . . . Tuition is expensive and that’s a significant sacrifice that a family has to make. Is it worth it? My answer is absolutely yes. Overwhelming.

“The Culver difference to me is the idea that Culver has a lifelong commitment to leader development, incredible faculty, state-of-the-art facilities, and unparalleled developmental opportunities. The reality is that both the summer and the winter schools, there are just endless chances for a young person to develop and grow during the most critical developmental years of one’s life. It even has the Rubin School for the Entrepreneur. I don’t know how many schools can say they have something like that. That’s pretty special.

“So tonight, the theme of my talk is 11 life truths that Culver has taught me, from a Class of 2011 grad.”

Welch with instructor Nancy McKinnis.

Welch with instructor Nancy McKinnis.

1 – You never know what you have until it’s gone.

“For those students back on Lake Maxinkuckee, they’re in for a pretty incredible time. For you prospective students, I am so excited that you are thinking about making an incredible investment in your life. I didn’t realize the investment I was making in myself and my future, and that Culver would help develop me. The reality is, for those who have the opportunity to go, it will change your life. And you will be the better for it. You don’t realize all that Culver has taught you until you’re out. As my personal journeys continue, I am continually amazed when I come to the realization of all the things I learned to do. For example, with a little soul searching, it’s not difficult for me to discover that so many of the skills I see those around me struggling to learn, I’ve already learned. I’ve got it nailed down. I figured out how to do it at Culver.”

2 – Be a team player.

“The second you’re too busy to help a friend, you’re in the wrong. Life is not a journey you get through alone, but an intricate path of relationships woven into an indelible set of footprints on our heart. ”

3 – People matter.

“Culver is committed to the development of people, and making young men and women leaders for the future, leaders that we need in our country and beyond our borders as well. The lifelong friendships from Culver are things I will cherish for the rest of my life. There are people I still talk to every single day. There are people I don’t talk to everyday who are classmates that I could meet in a bar right now and pick up like it was yesterday. The same goes for our relationship with our faculty and staff. There are so many people who impact us. It’s not very often that as a student you’d have the home phone numbers of your teachers with the full expectation you could call them anytime, day or night, with a problem or challenge and they’d be there for you. Not many high schools can say that about the team they put together. And that’s what makes the difference. People really do make a difference.”

Capt. Mike Neller, commandant of cadets, with Welch

Capt. Mike Neller, Culver’s commandant of cadets, with Welch

4 – A lifelong dedication to learning counts.

“The second you think you know everything, you’re in a lot of trouble.  When I was at Culver, I didn’t live everyday like I wanted to be a West Point cadet. In fact, when I turned in my application they told me I was a very mediocre candidate. That stung me in the heart for a couple of reasons. The reality was, I didn’t think about it every day. What was I doing as a Culver cadet to make myself a better West Point cadet or a future applicant? And while the team around me was built to help me succeed, intrinsically I didn’t really understand that. So, now, what I tell people to do is think about a goal . . . and write one word that symbolizes that on a piece of paper and hang it on a mirror or someplace that you look at every day. So when you wake up in the morning, you are reminded what your goal is for that day. And when you go to bed, ask yourself, ‘what did I do today to make myself a better (whatever). What conversation did I have, what research did I do? What have I done to help myself achieve that future goal. When you see it every day, and you lead a purpose-driven life that allows you to follow and pursue those goals, it fundamentally changes everything. What’s on my mirror right now is ‘leader.’ What have I done today to make myself better for the soldiers I will one day lead.

5 – Everyone brings something to the table.

“Everybody has at least one thing they can do better than you. Normally, people are willing to share, so put people in your life who challenge you to be better. You’ll also come across people who do things the wrong way, and you can learn from them too and make it a positive. But never write someone off that you think you can’t learn from because everyone has something they can teach you in one way or another. People matter.”

6 – Be a global citizen.

“Culver took me to China, taught me to speak Spanish fluently. I forged relationships with Culver students from all over the world and it instilled in me a fierce passion to understand, experience, and grow from the world around me. A broadened perspective has opened so many doors for me as I continued forward. Culver taught me that.”

7 – Communicate effectively.

“Presentations in a classroom at Culver are a quotidian experience. Culver forced me to get up in front of my peers and forced me to develop confidence in communicating ideas, thoughts, and messages. In social settings, classrooms sessions, and competitions, I learned the importance of communicating effectively and understanding the importance of connecting with others. Being a global citizen goes hand-in-hand with communication. It’s one of the most critical skills Culver taught me, and why I’m not sweating bullets up here tonight.”

8 – Have integrity.

“A Culver student is imbued with doing the right thing, of being a leader of character. Culver teaches you to make the hard, right decision over the easier wrong. Culver gives you an important foundation on honor and will hold you to that standard, but you have to internalize it and carry it with you forward, especially when no one is looking. It is what will set you apart for the rest of your life. You are nothing without your integrity.”

9 – Manage time and be disciplined.

“You’re given 10 things to do in a day, you only have time to do five, and the expectation is you will still get everything done. It teaches you outstanding discipline and superior time-management skills. Probably the greatest gift Culver has given me so far. Life doesn’t get any easier, contrary to what I thought as a kid. It gets more difficult and more challenging, the work piles on, the responsibilities add up. Culver teaches you effectively deal with that.”

Head of Schools John Buxton introduced Welch.

Head of Schools John Buxton introduced Welch.

10 – Commitment to physical excellence.

“With amazing athletic teams and opportunities, Culver understands the dedication and importance of being physically fit, of being mentally fit. That’s critically important for our leaders moving forward. ”

11 – Lead by example.

“Culver teaches you if you want to be a professional, you have to act like a professional, talk like a professional, behave like a professional. They teach you that when you’re wearing a uniform, whether it’s Lucy in her kilts or Duty A, that you wear that uniform right. You take an extra minute in front of the mirror in the morning before you step outside. Make sure your brass is aligned, your name tag is straight, your bed is made. Because it’s the little things that count, and it’s those little things that can set you apart. Moving forward, that’s what allows Culver graduates to be successful.

“If you don’t believe you can change the world, get out of the way. I fundamentally believe that whether you are a garbage man, a dentist, an engineer, or you’re a teacher, you have an ability to change the world. And when you love what you’re doing and you’re passionate about what you’re after, you can change the world. Culver taught me that. Because every day I interacted with not only students, but faculty, staff; everybody I came in contact with was passionate, was excited about what they were doing, and realized that they were changing the world by creating young men and women to be leaders for the future. Leaders that we desperately need.

“So my advice to you future students out there is figure out what your passionate about, figure out what you love, whether it’s an area of study, a job you want to have in the future, a college you want to go to, get after that goal and be passionate about it because Culver gives you everything you need to chase your dreams, follow your goals, accomplish them, and be successful.

And without the Culver experience, I wouldn’t be here tonight. I wouldn’t be half the man I am or have accomplished the things that I have

“I am so grateful and so thankful to so many men and women in this room who have been so critical in shaping what I have become. Culver really does make a difference and I am so thankful l had the opportunity to be here.”


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