September 18, 2014
By: Brad Rudner | Courtesy of MGoBlue.com
For a guy who spends much of his time running, James Yau‘s future is in the air.
He’s a man that wears two uniforms. During the afternoons, you may see him running around town in Maize and Blue practice gear as a member of the Michigan cross country and track and field teams. You may also see him walking from class to class in different shade of blue, dressed as a member of Air Force ROTC Detachment 390.
For the past four years, Yau has been the only person at Michigan to be both a varsity student-athlete and an ROTC cadet. The balancing act is tough, and as you might imagine, it’s something he’s asked about quite often.
“When I first got my ROTC scholarship and decided to run track, a lot of people said, ‘Dude, you’re crazy,’ or they would ask me how in the world I balanced it,” Yau said. “Everybody has a lot on their plate. Student-athletes work and do research. For me, it’s the ROTC. I never saw it as something that would make me stand out.”
Yau admittedly lives an extremely regimented lifestyle and while that may drive some people crazy, he enjoys the structure it provides. A large part of that comes from his upbringing. His parents, George and Gloria, immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, eventually settling in Troy where they opened a few grocery stores. They were open seven days a week and never took vacations. As a third-grader, while most boys had soccer practice or played with the neighbors, Yau was almost always at one of the stores, helping out here and there, wherever an eight-year old could.
That’s not to say sports weren’t a big part. You wouldn’t think it, but Yau hated running. One year during his yearly elementary school fitness test, he ran the mile in 10 minutes. Another time, he passed out entirely.
He tried his hand at several different sports in middle school, ranging from swimming to football to hockey, but for some reason ended up coming back to cross country. The summer heading into high school, one of his friends suggested that he could earn a varsity letter as a freshman with the times he was running. The thought of earning a prestigious letter as a freshman piqued Yau’s interest, and the passion just increased from there.
During high school, that passion grew into success, as Yau earned just about every honor you can. When he was a senior, he made the decision to try and continue running in college, which was right around the time he also began to seriously consider military opportunities. He wasn’t interested in the Army or Marines (“I’m not that gung-ho of a guy,” Yau says.), which led him to the Air Force.
His grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Taiwanese Air Force, while his father served in the Army Airborne Corps. When making his own decision, Yau became motivated at the thought of being the first member of his family to serve in the United States military. For a kid with excellent grades and great skill on the track, there was really only one place that provided the opportunity and challenge he was looking for.
The Air Force ROTC (an acronym for Reserve Officer Training Corps) is generally a four-year program that prepares cadets to become officers in the United States Air Force while simultaneously earning a degree. Anyone can join (James is on a full scholarship), but it’s just like any other team in that there’s competition and attrition, mainly surrounding boot camp, which occurs the summer between a cadet’s sophomore and junior year. As Yau puts it, “It’s about learning to become a follower while practicing to become a leader.”
As a cadet moves up in the program, more responsibility is added. In the past, Yau has had supporting roles like planning events for alumni and creating ancillary training events for cadets. Now, he’s serving as inspector general, where he’s tasked with making sure the entire cadet wing (about 60 or 70 students) is working within Air Force regulations and standards.
With graduation right around the corner, Yau intends to pursue a career in the military. His intention is to get into the service, do his mandatory four-year post, then make a decision on whether or not to become an officer.
But just because you’re in the Air Force doesn’t mean you’re flying F-18s. This summer, he underwent a process to help determine what career in the Air Force best suits him, similar to a career-placement test one might take in high school. Here, cadets are instructed to fill out a form that asks for basic information (i.e. college courses, mode of study, GPA, ACT scores) and then pick and rank six computer-generated choices out of a possible 10 that are given. Among his choices: financial management officer, space officer and intelligence. From there?
“You hit submit, cross your fingers and hope you get something in your top three,” Yau said.
He adds that it’s basically up to the Air Force to determine where you go and notes that his specific path hasn’t yet been chosen. Strangely, though, he almost never got to this part.
New cadets are put under immense stress almost immediately. Yau signed a contract after his freshman year that locked him into service throughout the remainder of his enrollment, subsequently forcing him to pick every one of his courses for every semester through graduation. As time went on, he struggled to adjust to the training and the lifestyle. There were times when he questioned his place, mainly when it came to keeping that balance and regimented life that he’s now grown to love. Without the reassurances and support from both his coaches and his cadre, Yau isn’t sure he would be here.
His coach on the track, Kevin Sullivan, knows the sorts of things that are required of his runners, for he went through the same process in the mid-1990s as a student-athlete himself. Being a first-year coach, his relationship with Yau is still young, but Sullivan can’t help but be impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“You can see the qualities that he has as a leader and how those transfer over to what we’re trying to do in our program,” he said. “It’s been great for me because I’ve had certain expectations coming in on how the team is going to operate. James has stepped in and acted almost like an assistant coach without me having to ask or really specify how I wanted things done.”
His teammates recognize the special leadership qualities James has, too. That’s just one reason why they voted him a co-captain for this year’s team earlier this week.
On the flip side, Yau’s participation in cross country and track and field at times impeded his ability to fulfill his role within the ROTC. Lieutenant Colonel Robert J. Bement, part of the cadre that leads Detachment 390, believes that by taking a fifth year for athletic purposes, Yau has been able to participate in ROTC in ways that he couldn’t in the past and that his enthusiasm has helped him become one of their best leaders.
“One of the great things about Cadet Yau is his energy,” Bement said. “Normally, a fifth-year senior wouldn’t have a very active role, but since our junior and senior classes are smaller this year, James was the first person to jump up and offer his assistance in more leadership positions, like inspector general. He’s willing to do anything for you at any time, so long as his schedule allows it.”
Yau looks at this story as an opportunity to not only explain his journey (this was his first interview) but also to deliver a few key messages. First, for those who struggle with managing their own time, Yau points to these four principles:
1. Self-Discipline: “You have to be able to control everything and feel comfortable under pressure. One thing that gets me through tough situations is singing “The Victors” in my head. It gets me going. Other times, I’ll remember the Airman’s Creed. The first part goes, ‘I am an American Airman. I am a warrior. I have answered my nation’s call.’ Just saying that reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
2. Prioritization: “You have to know what’s important and what you need to get done. If I have something for ROTC vs. something for academics, you have to be able to put what’s due first while still fitting in time to practice and train.”
3. Communication: “I have to be able to communicate with my coaches and my cadre at the ROTC detachment to know where I have to be, what I had to do and when. If you don’t communicate, that’s where you run into a lot of problems.”
4. Sacrifice: “It might seem silly to say this, but you have to know what you’re willing to sacrifice. For me, it’s time with my friends and family. There are times when I feel like I’m spread so thin that I have more acquaintances than personal relationship. I’m close with my teammates, obviously, but outside of that, relationships are difficult to maintain.”
He would also like to see the two worlds collide more often. Being fortunate enough to walk both paths, Yau gets to experience being both a student-athlete and an ROTC cadet at the same time, yet there’s little to no interaction between the two, something he’s working hard to change.
As a start, he has a message for all student-athletes, both at Michigan and elsewhere: if you see a student in uniform, say hello. Introduce yourself. Ask them about their experiences. Yau believes it’ll make their day.
“They’re the same kind of people that just wear a different uniform,” he explains. “They make the same sacrifices, go after their goals and represent something bigger than themselves, just like student-athletes do. I know my friends would be ecstatic if a student-athlete acknowledged them.”
After four years, juggling the two isn’t so difficult. Instead of having to make a choice between one or another, Yau now has the unique honor of representing two brands that are recognized worldwide, whether it is the block M on his chest (as a runner) or the Stars and Stripes on his arm sleeve (as a cadet).
“When I’m at the track, I’m focused on running,” Yau said. “But when I’m at ROTC, I’m not an athlete. I’m Cadet Yau. There’s no special treatment. What I’m told to do, I do. What I need to get done, I get done.”
Here, the sky isn’t the limit. It’s where he’s destined to be.