UCF Army ROTC has won its first national salute from the U.S. Army Cadet Command, becoming one of eight programs to be honored this year with the prestigious MacArthur Award.

UCF’s corps was selected from among 275 senior ROTC units nationwide as one of the top programs in the country. Lt. Colonel Mario A. Johnson, professor of military science and chair of the UCF Army ROTC, said a culture shift toward cadet-centered curriculum has helped bring the university its national recognition.

Johnson’s three-point training plan, which focuses on cadets’ leadership skills under challenging conditions, rigorous fitness and conditioning plans and the honing of land navigation expertise, prepared cadets for national competitions in 2013 UCF ranked in the top 10 percent of the National Order of Merit List. That ranking put the university’s program in the running for the MacArthur Award.

Eric Gilhooley, M.B.A. student and UCF Army ROTC cadet battalion commander said one of the most challenging practices for those competitions came from Johnson’s land navigation drills.

“We’d wake up at two in the morning and be at the course by three for night land navigation before we even started our day,” Gilhooley said. “They set up some astounding courses.”

According to Gilhooley, the win is shared among cadets as a source of pride and an honor he will tell future employers about.

Jeremy Hancock, UCF M.P.A. student and soon-to-be ROTC graduate who works closely with Gilhooley, could have chosen any program in the country as an active duty infantryman. Having completed his bachelor’s degree at the university in 2003, he chose to return to UCF to rejoin his friends to train with the program he considers his “primary option.”

“Because I was on active duty, I could have chosen any program,” Hancock said. “We have an outstanding cadre staff. I think they’ve done an outstanding job at preparing future leaders within the Army.”

Cadets like Gilhooley and Hancock had to stick together for the last criteria of the MacArthur Award, as Army Cadet Command also measures programs by how many cadets graduate.

“Our retention rate hovers around 95 percent,” Johnson said.

Johnson believes the comparably high retention rate is due to the fact that UCF’s Army ROTC program is gaining word-of-mouth recognition for its leadership development, which he said is the most important part of the battalion’s curriculum.

The national recognition of the MacArthur Award will not only attract more candidates to the program, but also puts the program in the running for more scholarship money says Johnson. The goals that brought the ROTC Army program its first MacArthur award have been in focus since Johnson joined the program in June 2012, but he said he could not have done it alone.

“[The plan] could not have been done without the implementation of a great group of UCF Cadre members,” Johnson said.

He also named UCF President John C. Hitt and Vice President for University Relations and Director of Governmental Relations Daniel Holsenbeck for their contributions to the program’s success. Johnson said their support of his changes and offering land for running routes, resources and training facilities they’ve made available for cadets has been invaluable.

Hitt will be one of the distinguished guests at a ceremony March 12 when the U.S. Army Cadet Command will pair up with the Douglas MacArthur Foundation to present the award. Faculty may attend, but due to space restraints, student guests are limited only those invited.