Joan Acosta had never planned to join the military.
Her father, who rose to the rank of sergeant first class, enlisted in the US Army as a young man in Puerto Rico. By the time the family settled in Tennessee decades later, Acosta had lived in Belgium, Germany, and Florida. In her first year at Rossview High School in Clarksville, she decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program—but not because she wanted to follow in his footsteps. “I wanted to get out of my PE class,” she says, laughing. “I knew they offered credit if I signed up. That was really all it was for me at first.”
Then Acosta got an opportunity to lead. First she served as commander of the program’s leadership and academic bowl team, then as an operations officer, and by her senior year as battalion commander. A Shotokan karate black belt and martial arts instructor in her extracurricular life, Acosta took naturally to responsibility.
“You just learn so much from other people while being the leader,” she says.
And that’s when she decided to take the next step. Acosta told her parents—her father retired from the military and mother a former nurse in San Juan—that she was going to join ROTC in college and become a nurse. They were surprised but quickly jumped on board to help her do the research. Google took over from there.
“I literally just typed into my search engine ‘Best nursing programs in the US,’”Acosta says. “I scrolled through to Tennessee, and there was UT.”
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Nursing, which ranks 42nd nationally among all public universities (among the top 10 percent for undergraduate nursing programs) admitted Acosta directly for the fall.
Army ROTC also awarded Acosta a prestigious four-year national scholarship to cover her tuition and fees. Acosta could have used it at any university in the country. But she chose UT, where the Army ROTC program led by Lieutenant Colonel Justin Howe is considered among the top for civilian colleges. The incoming class of cadets—which includes Acosta—is ranked number one nationwide by the US Army Cadet Command for its percentage of three- and four-year scholarships. More than half of the 80 first-year cadets who will arrive on campus this August are on a national scholarship.
“I’ve focused my last four years here on making sure the cadre, staff, and students understand that people matter most,” says Howe, who also serves as a professor of military science. “The cadets in the program—nearly 200 of them every year—really embrace that teamwork and relationships are going to take them wherever they’ve set their goals.”
Acosta fits the mold perfectly.
While ROTC programs prepare students to commission as military officers at the same time they graduate with their academic degrees, they also place a heavy emphasis on citizenship, community engagement, and life skills. Leadership is built into the program’s DNA.
Acosta displayed much of that commitment while in JROTC. By her sophomore year, she was leading seniors to the Academic Bowl National Competition in Washington DC, where the team placed 14th among 1,700 schools from around the country.
“People want to follow her,” says John Braun, a retired Army officer who serves as Rossview High School’s JROTC instructor. “She’s smart, funny, and articulate. But when she says, ‘OK, let’s go, we’ve gotta do this,’ everyone gets up and goes with her.”
Acosta had applied to different universities in and out of state but knew UT would allow her to stay close to family while getting a world-class education. Once she expressed that she wanted to become a military nurse working with the families of soldiers, UT became an ideal fit.
“She just has the drive that you need to be successful in the Army,” Braun says. “She’s going to excel; she’ll pick up all the things she needs to learn about life in the military along the way.”
Once he was notified of her application, Howe sent Acosta a postcard, as he does with every applicant. Once they connected and she told him about her interest in pediatric nursing, Howe and Kent Maddox, enrollment and scholarship officer for Army ROTC, connected her with other nursing students and made sure she had an opportunity to meet them in June when she visited campus.
The personalized attention cadets receive, along with a commitment to training and resourcing, is part of the reason UT’s program is so successful.
Eighty-four percent of cadets who graduated in 2022 received their first-choice Army branch, or job, compared to 67 percent nationwide. Nearly 40 percent of all cadets at UT are women, compared to 19 percent in the most recent count from the Army Officer Corps.
Acosta doesn’t want to get ahead of herself. But she’s excited to immerse herself in cadet life—signing up for Tennessee Rangers, Scabbard and Blade Honor Society, and UT Color Guard. She’s just as eager to engage in undergraduate research as a nursing student. Wherever the road takes her, she’s confident that UT will help her get one step closer to her dreams.
“I love the phrase ‘Vol is a verb,’” Acosta says. “It’s about being more for others than yourself. I can tell that Lieutenant Colonel Howe lives by that. I can tell the other cadets live by that. So I’m motivated and I’m inspired to show up and try to be as good, maybe even better, than I think I could be.”