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Degrees of learning

McGill Engineering student describes his summers with the Canadian Air Force

Colin Parker is a U2 Chemical Engineering student and an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Air Force. Like hundreds of university students across Canada, Parker is an ROTP (Regular Officer Training Plan) student, and has spent his past three summers training to become an Air Field Engineer.

The McGill Daily: What does being an ROTP student involve?

Colin Parker: Well it depends where you go. I mean, it’s essentially an education combined with military training, such that, when you graduate, you become an officer in the Canadian Forces. So, during the school year that involves going to school. The majority of students go to the military college in Kingston, but the option is open to go to a university of your choice, which is kind of what I did. So, during the school year…it involves doing my degree, and passing. During the summer, I do various training…in line with my chosen career. … [Air Field engineering] is kind of a civil engineering within the Forces.

MD: What sort of things do you do over the summer?

CP: In the summer [of] my first year, I did my first phase of training, which was just kind of like boot camp, if you will. Just your basic…everyone does that. Last summer I went up to New Brunswick, in which I did the second phase. Essentially, for most people there are four phases of training: the first one is common. The second one is a little more specific and as you go they get more and more specific. Phases three and four are usually trade specific. So, the first one I did was boot camp. The second one was more or less a general army course out east. Next summer, I’m back out there. It’s more specific to engineering, but not my kind of engineering. And my fourth phase is more specific to my kind of engineering.

MD: What was Basic Training like for you? What was the routine?

CP: It wasn’t that bad. It was just 16 weeks of seeing if you’ll put up with it. I mean, there is obviously a physical component of it. I don’t find it that terrible. … The routine is get up [in the] early dark every morning, some form of PT, breakfast, and then over the course of the day it’s either more PT, or the various class work they have associated with it, which range from military history to very basic-level tactics. They spend an incredible amount of time focusing on ethics and you know, they like associate it with how you’re supposed to represent, and like proper ethical choices. And the last number of weeks, because of officers, is leadership. So, from the leadership, like writing orders, working on how to properly lead troops. And then there’s – near the end – a number of weeks which are out in the field applying what you’ve learned in the garrison.

MD: Why did you decide to enlist for the ROTP program?

CP: It seemed like the reasonable choice. I’d been in the Reserves before I hadn’t [enlisted], and so I guess I was familiar with how it worked, and, like the lifestyle, I guess. It is a reasonable, valid choice. I mean, they’re paying for your education afterwards. I’ve got a guaranteed job in a field that is acceptable. I’ll be doing engineering work when I graduate is kind of what it boils down to, too, and I don’t see the given employer – being the Canadian Forces – as an unreasonable option. I mean, I looked into it, and I believe in what they work towards. So, it’s a job. It’s got more challenges in it than, say, most jobs, but in the end I think it’s reasonable.

MD: What’s going to happen when you graduate? What rank will you be upon entering the Canadian Forces?

CP: When I graduate I owe them back a number of years. I think it’s like six years. Essentially it’s proportional to how much schooling they pay for, which, I mean it makes sense. But essentially, when I graduate, I have to go out east to finish my training because, I mean, there’s only so much you can do during the summer and my last phase, I believe, is eight months long. And then after that, I believe I spend a little bit of time in Canada actually working with other members of my trade and then, most likely, I go overseas for at least a tour and then it’s up to you whether you want to keep going or not. … As soon as I get my degree, I will be commissioned to the rank of Second Lieutenant. Pretty much the requirements of that are: to have a degree and to have completed Basic, which I did a couple of summers ago.

MD: When you’re shipped out, what sorts of things does a Field Engineer do in the field?

CP: Well, an Air Field engineer. It’s a trade group. It’s not a specific job. Within that trade grouping, there are a number of jobs. Varying…I mean it’s incredibly diverse. The major one is acting as sort of a civil engineer. Because most of the bases are essentially small towns, small cities. They require infrastructure, which needs to be, obviously, taken care of. It needs to be physically built, maintained, and developed, expanded –– which is essentially what an Air Field engineer does. I mean there’s other ones. I’m hoping – my degree is in chemical engineering – I’m hoping to work in something more related to that. A major application is water treatment, being able to provide valid drinking water – not only for the bases, but in like the areas you’re operating around.

MD: After you’ve fulfilled your commitment after graduation, do you think you’ll stay on longer?

CP: I anticipate it, yes. I mean, it’s like any job: if it’s not working out, it’s not working out. But I mean, I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t. It just leaves it open at that point in time to make a choice, but I anticipate staying with them.