Project GO alum honored for work as cadet during COVID-19
Story by Joe Lacdan
Second Lt. Lauren Shappell faced her first challenge as a military leader before she commissioned into the Army.
Halfway through the spring semester of her senior year at the University of North Carolina, the school’s administration told students to return home during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Shappell, serving as a battalion commander for 70 cadets in her ROTC unit at Chapel Hill, had to adjust her communication and interaction with fellow students using virtual tools and online apps. Some cadets lived in different time zones and others couldn’t always make it to assigned online lab meetings.
“People had different situations and I was kind of being empathetic to that,” she said. “It was a lot of flexibility, a lot of communication with my senior class.”
President Donald Trump honored Shappell and about 20 other college and high school students in a White House ceremony Friday afternoon, praising the newly-commissioned officer for her efforts during the semester.
“I'm very flattered,” she said before the ceremony. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Shappell hosted Zoom meetings with her battalion for the remainder of the spring, made online announcements addressing the concerns of her fellow cadets and offered encouraging words.
“It definitely challenged me,” Shappell said. “I feel like I grew a lot in that position.”
Now Shappell hopes to make the same impact on her Army career as a member of the Medical Service Corps at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Before assuming her new duties at Campbell, she will travel to Joint Base San Antonio for training.
Earlier this month, Shappell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology without an in-person commencement. Shappell said the school hopes to have a formal ceremony for the class of 2020 in the fall.
Shappell is no stranger to adjusting to changing circumstances. As a military child, she and her family had to shift their lives, moving to Turkey and Germany when her father changed duty assignments. At age 4 she learned to speak Turkish while her father served as a battalion commander at the NATO Joint Command Southeast in Izmir, Turkey.
As a high school student, she later became interested in following in the footsteps of her father, Steven, a retired Army colonel and veteran of 33 years, and her mom, Cynthia, who served as an Army psychiatrist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
While maintaining a 3.69 GPA in college, she became one of UNC’s top cadets, earning distinguished military graduate honors. She is currently a semifinalist for a Fulbright scholarship, and the former lacrosse and field hockey player also excelled in military courses and physical fitness.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to have good grades for grad school,” Shappell said. “I took [ROTC] seriously, basically, and I invested myself in academics and extracurriculars like going abroad and studying languages.”
Shappell originally planned to enroll in medical school to work as an Army doctor, but after taking an overseas trip to East Africa she now hopes to eventually work in public health. She expanded on her interest in foreign languages and other cultures at UNC by taking two years of both Swahili and Turkish.
After earning James Madison University’s “Project GO” scholarship, she learned about the social and economic effects of colonialism in east African countries. The Virginia native traveled to places like Zanzibar City on Tanzania’s eastern island, Unguja, where she witnessed the impact of social injustice on Maasai people.
“It definitely changes your perspective,” Shappell said. “It really broadened the scope of what I knew to be different ways people live… And these are ways people make a living and how they are threatened by environmental changes or policies.”
She revisited learning Turkish at UNC and before her junior year she traveled to Bulgaria to take part in the Army’s Cultural Understanding Language Proficiency program for cadets. There, she taught Bulgarian soldiers English to help them qualify for NATO positions.