“It’s simple — we’re doing our thing," Grace Shimkus said. "We’re part of the corps, and we’re here to stay.” 

This fall marks 50 years of women in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, and Shimkus, a junior majoring in English literature, is making her mark as the first and youngest woman in her immediate family to join the military and attend Virginia Tech.

“I was inspired to join the military because of my grandfathers: one who immigrated from Italy and served in the American Army during World War II and another who served in the Navy and fought during the Vietnam War,” Shimkus said. “I didn’t know which branch of service I initially wanted to enter, but I knew I wanted to serve.”

Born and raised in Wall Township, New Jersey, Shimkus always wanted to pursue a military career and was inspired by her English teacher to attend Virginia Tech. She received the National Army scholarship in high school, which allowed her to attend any university with all tuition and fees paid. And she chose to become a Hokie.

“I was raised with the mindset that selfless acts of service and serving my country was really important to me,” Shimkus said. “I loved the campus, and I joined the Army because they took me first.”

She currently serves as the first sergeant in the regimental band, the Highty-Tighties, as a cadet noncommissioned officer, and is accountable for 113 cadets in her company.  She helps maintain the flow of the corps, guides first-year students through training, and checks in with her platoon sergeants and squad leaders on a regular basis.

But there is a softer side to her responsibilities in the corps. Shimkus is one of a few known cadets to major in English.

“I chose English because of my English teacher, who was a graduate student and teacher at Virginia Tech,” she said. “I’ve always loved reading and writing, and I’ve always considered myself a writer … more so of a poet.”

She had previously taken a course with Jane Wemhoener, a senior instructor in the Department of English, that highlighted unappreciated female writers of poetry and fiction throughout history and the influence literature has had on women and gender in general. Shimkus said she was inspired and wants to become a teacher who shows the beauty of literature and how writing can educate and empower people.

History of women in the Corps of Cadets: Humble beginnings and a prosperous future

Like Shimkus, Marilyn Helmeyer, class of 1977, was the first woman to join the Highty-Tighties. The Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets started to admit women in the fall of 1973.

“I think it’s really important for women to be able to be in this program, especially since the way the military is changing and the way that it receives gender as a whole is changing as well,” Shimkus said. “Women should be in leadership positions and have the kind of voice that changes the ideas of toxic masculinity around the military.”

Shimkus is one of the 21 percent of women that make up the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. She said that she wanted to be taken seriously, and not be seen as weak or emotional. This fueled her fight to strengthen camaraderie and inclusivity inside the corps.

“I’m working with a bunch of the diversity organizations, Women of the Corps being one of them, to create a safe space for women to be themselves, without the fear of being judged or rejected for certain things,” Shimkus said.

Written by Christeana Williams, a multimedia journalism major minoring in professional and technical writing