By Col. Patience Larkin ’87, U.S. Air Force (retired), alumni director

Sandy Siegrist ’85, at left, and Joelle (Pond) Payne ’18
Sandy Siegrist ’85, at left, and Joelle (Pond) Payne ’18

In 1984, Sandy Siegrist ’85 became the first female cadet to hold the position of regimental executive officer (XO).

She paved the way for many young women who followed and who continue to aspire to hold top leadership roles in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC). 

An alumna of E-Frat, Siegrist has had a hugely successful and varied career. She is a certified public accountant, has an MBA in finance from California State University, and has a master’s degree in banking administration from the Pacific Coast Banking School at the University of Washington.

She held leadership positions at KPMG, Bank of America, Microsoft, and Expedia and now owns her own business.

This year marks the 45th year since the first women were permitted to enroll in the VTCC. While many things have not changed — the honor code, rat belts, and saluting the Rock — a lot has. We thought it would be interesting to compare Siegrist’s experience with that of U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Joelle (Pond) Payne ’18, the regimental XO for the spring 2018 semester.

Pond is a transportation officer for the 18th Fires Brigade (18th Airborne Corps) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She is slated to move to a new position soon and hopes to stay in the Army as long as possible. She said she enjoys the military lifestyle and is honored to serve our nation.

Q: What made you decide to attend Virginia Tech and join the VTCC?

Siegrist: I wanted the Corps of Cadets experience and attended Virginia Tech on a four-year Army scholarship. The Corps was the reason I attended Virginia Tech!

Payne: I decided to join Virginia Tech when I was offered a four-year Army ROTC scholarship here. I decided to look into the Corps of Cadets program and did a spend the night with a former regimental XO, Tiffany Borden ’17, and knew this was the place for me.

Q: Which VTCC unit(s) did you belong to and what Corps positions did you hold before being selected as the regimental XO?

Siegrist: E Squadron, Eager freshman and sophomore, staff sergeant for the regimental S-1 [adjutant]

Payne: I ratted Alpha my freshman year and was shuffled into Hotel Company, where I served as a fire team leader, platoon sergeant, first sergeant, and company commander.

Q: Was regimental XO a position you aspired to attain before your senior year?

Siegrist: When I was called for the regimental commander selection board, I knew I wanted the XO position and presented that desire to the board. I wanted the day-to-day leadership, training, and staff management experience afforded by that position.

Payne: I was not very familiar with the regimental XO position. I had wanted to be Hotel commander since I shuffled into the company. I wanted to be involved in the Flaming VT, a Hotel tradition at homecoming, which inspired me to become company commander.

Q: How did you become regimental XO?

Siegrist: At that time, there was a regimental commander selection board, and all senior leadership positions were selected from that group. I did not think that either the cadets or the alumni were prepared for a female regimental commander. And I preferred the experience offered by the XO position with internal focus instead of the regimental commander position, who was the Corps’ representation to the community and university. So when I met with the board for my interview, I had a prepared speech spelling out why I would be the best XO for the VTCC, why I thought that the Corps and alumni and university community were prepared to accept a female in that role, and why I wanted that position.

Payne: [2nd Battalion Deputy Commandant] Capt. [Jim] Snyder asked if I was seeking out battalion- or regimental-level positions, and I told him I was interested in an ROTC [cadet] position but would consider it. I was interviewed by the commandant and was later offered the position.

Q: How did your daily life change once you became the regimental XO?

Siegrist: The most notable change for me in those years was the housing situation and interaction with the commandant and his staff.

During my freshman year, we had the first co-ed floor in the history of the university. There was a door between the female section and male section, and all females were in Brodie Hall. My sophomore year, we moved into both Brodie and Rasche halls. But no female had yet lived on regimental staff hall next to the commandant’s office. Lt. Gen. [Howard] Lane asked at the end of my junior year where I wanted to live (along with Christy (Burr) Nolta ’85, also on regimental staff) during my senior year. I’m not sure what he had to do to negotiate that with the vice president for student affairs, but he made it happen!

The regimental commander and I met with General Lane and the assistant commandants early every morning. That was an amazing experience that I cherish to this day. What a fabulous learning environment!

Payne: I loved working with such high-caliber cadets. We had a great staff, and it was an honor working with them on a daily basis. It was different from fall semester in that I didn’t have a group of freshmen to help train, but instead I had such a high-caliber staff that led the regiment.

Q: What additional challenges (if any) did you face by being a woman in this position?

Siegrist: There was probably a little bit of culture shock with the cadets and alumni at first. But once the work began, I felt fairly well accepted. The only issue was the housing situation already noted. The two females were not permitted to utilize the head and shower facilities on regimental staff hall — we had to hike up to the third floor to the female section. But nothing insurmountable.

Payne: I have received comments about getting this position by being a female and the Corps needing “diversity.” However, I have pushed the comments to the side to prove that this organization and the military is a meritocracy.

Q: What was your proudest achievement as the regimental XO?

Siegrist: Being the first female to hold the position.

I instituted a policy that after the freshman cadets were “turned” in the fall, they still did not fraternize with the senior cadets until the beginning of spring quarter. I wanted the freshman training program to resemble the fraternization policies in the services.

We brought the Skipper back into operation that year after the accident several years prior — the Skipper crew reported to the XO at the time.

Payne: I was proud to help our staff plan and prepare a well-executed Platoon Tactical Challenge event that was revamped from the previous year from scratch.

Q: What was your greatest challenge as regimental XO?

Siegrist: Being the first female to hold the position…

Payne: My greatest challenge was working with varying leadership perspectives and integrating our different aspects into planning and executing.

Q: What was the funniest thing that happened during your tenure as regimental XO?

Siegrist:: Oh my. Maj. Gen. [Randal] Fullhart won’t like that story — VMI was involved. I had best employ the “Thumper Theory” here and keep my mouth shut.

The story I can tell involves the meeting I held with all female freshmen during cadre week. After I spoke with them about what it was like to be a woman in the VTCC, I opened the floor for questions. One brave young lady asked haltingly, “Do we have to get our hair cut as short as yours?” Even then my haircut resembled something Ollie North would wear. Poor kid was terrified that she was going to have to get her long locks trimmed almost as short as the crew cuts their male counterparts had received on day one.

Payne: One morning right before formation, I was meeting the regimental staff in the hallway and came out in the wrong uniform but had to run back and “superman” change into the correct uniform a few minutes before formation.

Q: What surprised you most during your tenure as regimental XO?

Siegrist: General Lane was such a perfect Southern gentleman — in a way that was sometimes uncomfortable for me and sometimes comical. When I accompanied him to meetings on campus or presentations with alumni, he would often step ahead to open a door for me instead of me doing that for him. It became something of a fun joke between us, but it always felt odd that this lowly cadet had a flag officer opening doors for her.

When we had our daily early morning meetings, General Lane had a coffee pot in his office. Deputy Commandants Col. Dutch VanderPyl and Col. Gene Wilson would enter the room, and General Lane would ask them if they wanted a cup of coffee. And the regimental commander, as well, was offered coffee. Not me. The first time I attended that meeting at the end of my junior year after change of command, he stood when I came into his office and very kindly and in an almost grandfatherly way asked, “Can I get you a cup of cocoa?” Yes, always the polite Southern gentleman.

And what a great lesson — being an intensely human leader.

That lesson came to fruition many times in my tenure, but none quite so intensely as the second day of cadre week. I don’t recall the cadet’s name, but we received a phone call that this young lady’s father had unexpectedly passed away. Notifying her and supporting her and working to get her home — what a horrific life experience for her. I remember thinking that everything we did for her and said to her was so very important — and I didn’t want to make any mistakes. And after she was on her way home the next day, the first phone call I made was to my own father to tell him how much I loved him.

Payne: After having many conversations with the commandant [General Fullhart], I learned that he is a passionate Disney fan. Driving back with him and [Regimental Commander] Cadet [Mairead] Novak ’18 from Richmond, Virginia, Novak and I got to read one of his Walt Disney World books that tells about all the tips and tricks to a great trip to Disney.

Q: What advice would you give to future regimental XOs?

Siegrist: Oh my — there were so many. Being a fair, firm and compassionate leader. And I was always intensely appreciative of the amazing leadership lab that is the VTCC. Every day I was honored to be in the XO position — and every day since.

Payne: I would highly encourage future regimental XOs to be as involved as they can with interacting with all cadets and commandant staff members. I have gained so much information from them and will take away all the invaluable lessons I have learned.

One quote [3rd Battalion Senior Enlisted Advisor] Sgt. Maj. [David] Combs shared with me is that “You can’t be an ‘A’ in everything.” It is imperative to balance out the missions from your job, your relationship and family life, and your personal and spiritual life. That is one of the greatest lessons I learned.