When she arrived on campus in 2012, Alyssa Michalke’s goals for her time at Texas A&M University were modest enough. One, she wanted a challenge. Two, she wanted to distinguish herself in some way from her more than 60,000 peers.
How she went from a culture-shocked freshman in a lecture hall larger than her high school in tiny Schulenburg, Texas to becoming the first woman to lead the Corps of Cadets and make the women’s basketball team depends on whom you ask.
If you ask Michalke, she’ll say her accomplishments were never in the cards and give full credit to her support system of family and friends. If you ask those who oversaw her development, they’ll say her successes were predestined.
What isn’t up for debate about Michalke’s time at Texas A&M is that when she receives her degree in ocean engineering this week, she won’t have just accomplished her goals. She will have exceeded them by becoming a key figure in Aggie history.
“The worst they can tell you is no”
Michalke’s story almost never got a chance to be told.
“Being an engineering major was a lot more work than I anticipated,” Michalke said. “I really considered dropping the Corps. I thought I was motivated and driven but everyone here was on another level.”
She would call home frequently, sometimes near midnight, to vent to her parents about her struggles. Her mother even reached out to Corps Commandant Brig. Gen. Joe Ramirez (Ret.) in an email, asking him to keep an eye on her daughter.
She ultimately decided to see the Corps through until graduation. That’s when Ramirez started seeing a change. In Michalke he saw humility, a maturity beyond her years, a penchant for teambuilding and a can-do attitude that made it easy for a group of young people to rally around her.
“People saw potential in me when I didn’t see it,” Michalke said. “Sophomore year people said I should apply to top positions when I was content to just stick it out. They told me ‘the worst they can tell you is no and you can prove them wrong if they don’t pick you.’ It helped me gain confidence even if I was sure I wasn’t fit for it.”
Much to her surprise, she landed the second-in-command role heading into her junior year. One year later, she applied with more confidence for Corps commander. Ramirez said the decision to make Michalke commander was unanimous. “It wasn’t even close,” he said.
Corps Final Review today. Proud of Alyssa Michalke & the Class of '16, & proud of Cecille Sorio & the Class of '17. pic.twitter.com/TmW4UPaHYT
— The Commandant (@TAMUCommandant) May 7, 2016
“That was emotional. I cried my eyes out.”
Never one to brag, Michalke fails to mention that she was the first woman ever to hold the position in the 140-year history of the Corps of Cadets.
“I just wanted to give back to an organization that had given me so much,” Michalke said. “The significance of it didn’t hit me until I saw how much attention and press it got.”
When the news broke, every local news outlet and some state outlets led their coverage with Michalke’s story.
A flood of emotional phone calls, texts and emails came rushing in from women who served in the Corps when it first began accepting women in 1974.
“It sunk in that this matters a lot more to a lot of people than I could have ever imagined,” Michalke said. “After the press died down I had time to sit back and think. I can’t screw this up.”
But just as the media attention began to die down, she had already begun preparing to pass along her responsibilities to the next commander.
“I was a nervous wreck”
Once she relinquished her duties at the end of spring, and the Corps was no longer in the picture, the idle time she had caused her to think twice about finishing her time at Texas A&M as just another student.
She frequently went to basketball games during her senior year in the Corps and felt the energy and passion from the women’s team led by Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Gary Blair. That atmosphere stuck with her during the summer while on an internship. Every day after work, she would work out and shoot hoops in a gym to get in shape, thinking she would have a chance to make the basketball team. With the same “the worst they can tell you is no” mentality that helped her in the Corps, she kept an eye on a September open tryout date.
“Tryouts came and I was a nervous wreck,” Michalke said.
The walk-on tryout field was slimmer than usual, at three compared to the usual 10. The players were neck-and-neck, but it was Michalke’s résumé that stood out to Blair as he watched the tryout from afar.
“I knew she had played high school ball and been in charge of the Corps and that solved that for me right here,” Blair said. “I want somebody to fill a role and not be a star and that starts with leadership. When I got a chance to meet her it was a no-brainer.”
Tryouts came and went and she routinely checked her phone until Oct. 6 when she received a text from video coordinator Kristen Grant, a member of the 2011 Texas A&M national championship team, that invited Michalke to be a part of the practice squad.
After a series of grueling practices, she was asked to be a part of the final roster. Even as a standout basketball player in high school, Michalke said nothing compared to the daily grind of basketball in one of the nation’s toughest athletic conferences.
“I think if I tried to do this after high school, I don’t know if I could have done it. I was a hot head,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have had the maturity to play.”
The personal development she received while in the Corps paid dividends when cadets showed up in full force to a January home game against Arkansas at Reed Arena. With the Aggies ahead by more than 27 points heading into the fourth quarter, Michalke made her way onto the court and the crowd went wild.
“I came off the bench, and then I recognized they were chanting my name. My face went so red,” Michalke said. “And then I get into the game, and I get fouled. Those were the most nerve-racking free throws in my life.”
She sank both free throws. Her time in the spotlight as a basketball player on the stat sheet amounted to seven points and 20 minutes of game time, but the experience was worthwhile.
“There was no way I could improve that much to play any considerable minutes,” Michalke said. “Thankfully because of the Corps, I knew how to work in the shadows and work in hopes of something paying off in the long run. It was taxing from a mental and physical standpoint.”
Blair said that though he is disappointed he didn’t get more opportunities to get Michalke on the court, he admired the way she fulfilled the role that she was asked to fill and the tenacity she brought to it.
“She was just very good at doing all the little things and being a good teammate,” Blair said. “Not everybody can be the star even though they want to be or their parents or their high school coach wants them to be. If you can find a young person and be the 12th man or the sixth person, that’s what you have to have.”
“I try to walk a little slower”
With basketball and the Corps of Cadets now in the rearview mirror and graduation square in the headlights, the last few weeks have offered her time to appreciate the last moments of being a student.
“It’s been surreal,” she said. “When I walk through campus, I try to walk a little slower because the next time I visit after graduation I’ll be a former student. Knowing that is emotional. It’s not going to be easy saying goodbye because I’ve come to love this place so much.”
Michalke’s admiration for Texas A&M goes both ways, according to Ramirez. He said her rise from nervous freshman to Corps commander is an enduring example of the type of person the Corps of Cadets molds and her presence on campus will be missed.
“Her legacy is locked in concrete,” Ramirez said. “She was the first female to be Corps commander and she wore that title well. We should all be proud of Alyssa that she took responsibility and did exceptionally well with it. You couldn’t ask for a better representative than Alyssa Michalke.”
When she receives her diploma at Kyle Field, it will be at the intersection of her lives in the Corps and as an athlete. The gravity of the moment isn’t lost on her, but right now her focus is on how hot it will be in the May sun in her cadet uniform and the emotions of the moment.
“When you think about it, the last time I was on Kyle Field, I was leading the Corps into the stadium because I was Corps commander,” she said. “It’ll be emotional.”
Former Commander for the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, Alyssa Michalke, saws 'Em off after helping the Aggies to a victory over Arkansas pic.twitter.com/YxFhnw8c0n
— Texas A&M Women's BB (@aggie_hoops12) January 13, 2017
“Why not just give it a shot”
Describing Michalke’s future, much like describing her past, depends on who you ask. After graduation and a short family vacation, she will start work full-time in July. She said she is nervous, but Ramirez isn’t nervous for her at all. He sees his former commander quickly rising through the ranks of a company or starting her own company during the next five to 10 years. Blair said she could have any job on campus and excel.
“She is in every aspect a leader by example,” Ramirez said. “If she were going into the military, I would be fighting to have her in my outfit.”
Few other Aggies have had a college career more interesting or historic than Alyssa Michalke, which puts her in a position to offer advice to incoming Aggies.
“Why not just give it a shot,” she said. “You may fail, but you’ll never know until you try. You never know what you can learn or benefit from.”