This past week, I had the privilege to interview Marine Corps officer, LTC Petra Seipel. Many may not know who she is, but to The Citadel, she is one of the most outstanding cadets to have gone through this institute. As a female and immigrant from the Czech Republic, her time as a cadet was not one to be downplayed, as she faced a number of difficulties during her four years in the corps. Although many have heard of the LTC and her multitude of accomplishments, there is still much about her time as a cadet that has been left unsaid.
Lima: Can you describe what it was like to be one of the first women in the corps of cadets during such a pivotal time for the school?
Seipel: It was a unique and challenging experience. When I applied to The Citadel I did not realize that there would only be four of us matriculating that summer. I never thought about going to The Citadel to be one of the first female cadets. I wanted a military school experience and as a non-US citizen; The Citadel was one of the few schools who could provide that.
There was a lot of animosity towards females but at the same time, there were a lot of supporters too. I would get told often “Petra, I did not want women at The Citadel, but I am glad that you are here!” I found that knob year was less of a challenge than sophomore year. As a knob, despite many people wanting to see us quit, we were protected. But as a sophomore, it was fair game. There was no upperclassmen protection and you were the bottom of the barrel among the upper classes.
Coincidentally, I got in most trouble my sophomore year. I may or may not have walked a tour or two! It was difficult to deal with people who hated you just for the fact you were a female. Who would constantly remind you that the only reason you achieved anything was that you were a female and it was given to you? You had to constantly watch what you were doing because as 1 of 4 and then 1 of 2, there was no blending into the crowd!
Lima: How were you able to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers coming from the Czech Republic to The Citadel?
Seipel: Prior to attending The Citadel, I spent four years in Washington, DC where I graduated from DC public schools. So my introduction to the diversity and the American way of life started in Washington, DC four years earlier.
By the time I got to The Citadel, my English was not bad, it was the accent that threw people off the most – and does to this day! I had some cultural barriers so the Hell Night song “Welcome to Hell” by Metallica went totally over my head! I also could not figure out why, when people asked to drive the stairs, they would say two initials with their last name. It took me forever to figure out that people have middle names! So in the meantime, I would just substitute the second initial of E (as in Petra).
I am an inquisitive person by nature and I love talking to people. Talking to people, asking questions, and getting to know them was one of the ways I overcame many barriers. It also opened many opportunities to try new experiences! Who would think that a girl from the Czech Republic could pass off for a Southern Belle during Civil War Reenactments?
Lima: What is your take on Shannon Faulker’s recent comments regarding her own personal views that she considers herself a Citadel alum?
Seipel: Technically, she is correct as she took enough day classes to qualify. There are many Citadel graduates – master’s degree students, military students, veteran students. But is she a graduate of the Corps of Cadets? Absolutely not.
Lima: In what ways has being a Citadel alum affected your life after graduating?
Seipel: I certainly did not have a feeling of being lost after I graduated from The Citadel. It gave me a sense of personal accomplishment as well as a head start in my career. Being a graduate makes you stand out in the crowd. Especially as a Marine, people take you more seriously if you are a Citadel graduate then a graduate from most other schools.
It certainly helped me in my Marine Corps career because I was able to transition smoothly from one military lifestyle to another. The Marine Corps does not exactly have a high female population so my experience at The Citadel served me well. Because of the adversity I encountered, I am able to deal with it well.
Lima: What is one thing you learned during your time here that you will always remember?
Seipel: I learned about the generosity of other people. We just did not have anything like that under communism. It was all about whom you know and what favors you can do for others. So learning that in the US people often help those in need, it was just incredible! I will always be thankful to those who have contributed to the “Petra Plank Holders” fund so I could go to The Citadel in the first place. I could not believe that people would contribute money towards my tuition.
I am thankful to Ambassador Motley and The Citadel Club of Greater Washington for taking a chance on a girl from the Czech Republic and providing me with such a great opportunity! And to the many others who have opened up their homes to me while I was going to The Citadel like Col and Mrs. Dick.
Because I have experienced such generosity, I always share my story with local organizations and students, to show that a small investment into someone by a person or an organization can have long-lasting effects on that person’s life! I have done many talks to high school students and civic organizations to help pass on this wonderful trait!
LTC Seipel’s accomplishments and ability to overcome the system allowed her to become one of the most respected female alumni throughout The Citadel family. Her story proves that whoever enters those front gates that protect our institution of higher learning and reaches the end of the road less traveled, earns their place within the corps.