When West Point cadet Lawrence Shepherd was a Renaissance High School student, college wasn't a consideration.
No one in his family, he said, had ever gone.
But in his junior year, Shepherd attended the Leadership, Ethics, and Diversity in STEM workshop, a one-day seminar organized by the U.S. Military Academy and other colleges, and it changed his life.
He was inspired by the cadets, West Point graduates and Army top brass who were on hand to tell them about their experiences at the academy and to encourage him to apply to several colleges.
"Before that, I had no intention of going to college at all," he told more than 300 middle and high school students at the same workshop he had been to four years ago. "So, you never know how you will feel the love if you put yourself out there."
In obvious and subtle ways, Friday's workshop at Marygrove College in Detroit gave Michigan students a glimpse of life at the academy -- and in a changing U.S. military.
High school students focused on the fundamentals of leadership and ethical decision making. Middle school students took classes that focused on circuits, robotics and bridge-building.
This year, the annual LEADS program was a day before Army plays Michigan in the Big House, adding excitement to the event and prompting more than one, "Beat Michigan!"
Educate, Train, Inspire
In addition to introducing students to cadets like Shepherd, the program highlighted how West Point is becoming a more diverse and inclusive organization, with the admission of more racial and ethnic minorities and women.
Founded in 1802 on high ground overlooking the Hudson River, the academy is in West Point, New York, about 50 miles north of New York City.
It was originally a fort, and now, in addition to a school, is a national landmark.
Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, who became the academy's first black superintendent last year, described an institution that aimed to develop students mentally and physically so they could help lead -- and protect -- America.
"Our job at the United States Military Academy is to educate, train and inspire," he said, emphasizing the importance of character, dignity, and respect. "You can be a part of that team."
Williams graduated from the academy in 1983.
The now three-star general was commissioned as a second lieutenant and rose through the ranks. Prior to his West Point appointment, he was commander of the NATO Allied Land Command in Turkey.
Other West Point graduates, like Pat Locke, talked about how many people just don't realize what kinds of college opportunities are available. She was among the first class of women to graduate from the academy.
While still mostly white and mostly male, West Point announced earlier this year that its graduating class of about 1,000 cadets included 34 black women, a record number, and 223 women overall.
The class had 110 African Americans, twice the number in 2013, and 88 Latinos, also a record.
Still, the program on Friday was not without some questions -- and criticism -- from parents and teachers about the role of the modern military, its commander and chief, and the kind of training.
But, the answers from Williams and others reflected a softer tone.
One teacher, who said she would never encourage a student to join the military in today's politically charged environment, asked the general how he would respond to "people like me."
A Hug from a General
Williams answered by first giving her a hug.
The reason, he added, that Americans have free speech and the right to criticize their government is because there are men and women in uniform who have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.
"We support a set of ideals," he said, regardless of who is in charge.
Service academies -- including, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado -- require academic and athletic fitness.
They are not only tuition-free, but students are paid to attend school there.
Shepherd, 21, said that the seminar ultimately put him on a path that he probably wouldn't have taken otherwise.
"It changed me as a person," he said. "I just had never been exposed to something like this before. I'm first-generation college, first-generation military. It's the same for a lot of us kids in this community."
He said that opportunities like going to college, ways to pay for it, and careers that he could have in the future, just weren't conversations he was having before he attended the seminar.
West Point, he said, turned out to be so much more than he thought it would be.
This article is written by Frank Witsil from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.