Out of the 10,000 undergraduate students at Penn, 17 participate in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, or NROTC. In addition to a normal Penn curriculum, NROTC participants—or “midshipmen,” as they’re called—undergo a rigorous program that will help them prepare for mandatory service in the United States Navy and Marine Corps.

While most students rarely venture out from underneath the covers before 8 a.m., midshipmen rise as early as 4:30 in the morning for drills, physical training or naval science class. Instead of internships in finance or journalism, they spend their summers on aircraft carriers or submarines.

And after graduation, they enter the Navy or the Marine Corps as commissioned officers to protect and serve the United States of America.

But midshipmen are more than just future submariners, pilots and Navy SEALs. They are volleyball players and PennQuest leaders. They sing in a cappella groups and build sets for Mask & Wig. They are your recitation TAs, your sorority sisters, your teammates. They are, in every respect, a Penn student just like you. A Penn student whose post–grad plans involve becoming a member of one of the world’s most powerful militaries. But you’d never hear Julie Roland, Peter McGuckin, Tess Burns, Louis Petro and the rest of their battalion brag about it.

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to miss them.

Related: A Day in the Life of an NROTC Student

"I spend a lot of early mornings with people from ROTC and because it’s such a unique environment, they probably know me in a way no one else really does." - Tess Burns, SEAS 17.

"I got to sail on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, do barrel rolls over the Pacific Ocean in a two seater trainer aircraft, and drive a submarine all before my twenty-first birthday."  - Julie Roland, College 15

"Being a part of ROTC means that I am representing my country everyday, because everyday I am serving it." - Julie Roland

"We are required to take a Naval Science class every semester on top of our physical training and other ROTC commitments, but these classes do not receive credit from Penn even though they do factor into our national rankings that determine what our jobs in the Navy will be once we graduate." - Julie Roland

"I did ROTC so I could have a normal college life, so sometimes I need to remind myself of that." - Tess Burns

"There is a kind of stereotype that goes with people who join the military. And it would be nice if Penn students thought outside of that context, maybe." – Peter McGuckin, SEAS 15

"I am also on a full scholarship to attend Penn thanks to ROTC, which is a gift that I do not take for granted." – Julie Roland

"So junior year rolls around, and I’m like wow, I kind of want to join an acapella group. I feel like I’m not doing enough extracurriculars, not necessarily doing things I want to have fun." – Louis Petro, SEAS 15

"I've been around the Navy pretty much my whole life because my parents were both officers, and my dad was still active duty when I was growing up." - Tess Burns

All photos in this article taken by Sarah Tse.