No one school is right for everyone, and there are genuine advantages to size and interaction with faculty that schools such as VMI, The Citadel, Norwich, and North Georgia offer. As Texas A&M itself grows the TAMU Corps is also growing, and with good reason. Houston Chronicle Copyright Houston Chronicle August 30, 201420140830010459 A&M's Corps of Cadets sees ranks swell as academics emphasized Benjamin Wermund; Houston Chronicle Aug. 30--COLLEGE STATION -- Joe Ramirez Jr. sees a lot of himself in the high school students he speaks to on recruiting trips around Texas. Like many teenagers at the predominantly minority schools he targets, the brigadier general and commandant of Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets was himself the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled at A&M in the 1970s. Perhaps that's why his pitches have been so successful. Over the last four years, Ramirez has been a transformative leader of the Corps of Cadets, the most recognizable symbol of A&M, once mandatory for all students. Under his leadership the corps has grown larger and more diverse and has increased its focus on academic success. An organization once focused on preparing students for the military now sends 60 percent of its cadets directly into the working world. The corps' ranks, once around 4,000, had been hanging around 1,900 since the end of the Vietnam War as the university opened up to more students and nearly doubled its enrollment. The corps, from which so many of A&M's well-known traditions stem, was being outgrown by a changing university. That's where Ramirez, a Houston native, came in. Hired in 2010, Ramirez was tasked with increasing the corps to 2,600 cadets by 2020. Four years later, Ramirez has nearly completed the task. The corps has swelled by more than 30 percent to roughly 2,500 students. Its makeup has changed as well, with more women and minorities joining than ever before. "One of my goals was, I wanted to grow the corps, but I also wanted it to be more diverse," Ramirez said. "I wanted it to reflect our state and our nation." When Ramirez took over, the corps was 9 percent female; women are now 14 percent of its members. The corps also has seen a rise in Hispanic cadets, from 13 percent to 20 percent. The number of African-Americans participating has gone up, too, but just enough to keep pace with the overall growth of the corps. Black students still make up only about 3 percent of the ranks. Under Ramirez, the corps has targeted students who might not have traditionally joined -- from academic stars to those who are the first in their family to attend college. Former cadets and corps leaders say the program is fundamentally different than it was before Ramirez started. It's a more serious program with a strong emphasis on academic success. "I'm not selling the same product now that I had to start selling day one," said Col. Samuell Hawes, who is in charge of recruiting. "We've fundamentally transformed the corps." The key difference, corps leaders say, is a greater focus on providing academic support to cadets. The corps has added two new leadership learning centers -- academic-focused buildings attached to the quadrangle, where the corps has lived since 1939. They're planning two more centers, which have classrooms, study areas and academic advisers. The corps' leadership brings in outside businesses to meet with cadets and recruit for internships. A private tutoring company helps cadets with math, physics, chemistry and biology, because half of the cadets major in science, technology, engineering and math -- highly sought-after degrees commonly referred to as STEM fields. Ramirez promoted the corps' one academic adviser to assistant commandant and hired two more full-time advisers. The advisers can add and drop classes for cadets, and they review schedules to make sure students are on the right track. The average spring GPA in the corps increased from 2.8 in 2009 to 2.9 in 2013. Last fall, 139 cadets posted a perfect 4.0 and 1,183 had a 3.0 or better. The once academically subpar group is now exceeding its peers at the university, said Michael Plank, a Houston businessman, who donated $3 million to help build the third leadership learning center. "The corps is not only holding their own, but exceeding expectations of the university for the first time in a long time," said Plank, a former cadet, who graduated in 1983. The shift in focus has allowed the corps to attract "top of the line" students who may never have considered the military-focused organization in the past, Hawes said. "We've cornered the market on the kids who just want to come in and do military stuff and be hooah," Hawes said. "We've got to move beyond that and make ourselves attractive to those super bright men -- and women, especially...we are now competing to recruit the top kids." David Trigg, the current corps commander, the top-ranking student in the organization, is an example of that. It took Hawes three pitches to sell Trigg, a double major in finance and business honors, on the corps. Trigg had heard stories about the old corps, about cadets partying and staying out all night, from his uncle, a cadet in the '90s. Trigg wanted to focus on academics and have a normal college experience. He didn't think the corps was for him. "Hawes said, 'When have you ever been normal? Why wouldn't you push yourself to be excellent?'" Trigg said. Hawes convinced him the corps would prepare him for the real world by supporting him academically and giving him good leadership experience. "It's focused on things the professional world looks for: educated leadership," said Trigg, who hopes to get a job in the oil and gas industry after graduating. He's also considering the military. Two years ago, the best performing freshman at A&M, a computer science major named Jacob Zerr, joined the corps. Now a junior, Zerr is the 1st Sergeant of Squadron 11, one of three units reactivated Friday to accommodate the growth. Squadron 11 is the 10th unit to be reactived since 2012. Last year, Gov. Rick Perry attended the reactivation of Squadron 6, the unit he was a part of when he went to A&M. Squadron 11 is different now, however. It's one of four new STEM-focused units, made up of students working toward STEM degrees, who can help each other out academically. Younger students are paired with older peers. This year, the corps has named its first female sergeant major, Alyssa Michalke. Another academic achiever, Michalke is a junior ocean engineering major who wants to work in offshore drilling. Like Trigg, Michalke was drawn to the corps by the leadership opportunities. "I wanted that extra challenge," she said. "The corps just looked interesting to me." But the academic support of the redesigned corps is also key for another group of students. It can provide a necessary net for first-generation college students, like Ramirez himself. His father graduated from high school and joined the Army afterward. His mother quit school in eighth grade to work on a farm. But the corps attracted Ramirez to college. Ramirez, who grew up on the east end of Houston, saw the A&M band, made up of cadets, march in downtown Houston when he was in high school. He had played saxophone since third grade, and when he saw the band, he was hooked. The corps can help those first generation students especially, Ramirez said. "Mom and Dad don't know what they're going through, so we try to provide some of that right here," he said. Ramirez has made a habit of touring Texas high schools to gin up interest in the corps. He seeks out schools that are predominantly minority -- including many in the Houston area -- and tells the students to stay in school, graduate and go to college. "I was the same thing," Ramirez said. "I say don't let anybody tell you you can't. Go to college, and if you go to college, come to A&M and see what we can offer you."