LEXINGTON, Va. – In a tumultuous time for Virginia Military Institute, a new leader is driving change and breaking barriers in more ways than one.
Change is in the air at VMI: masks on cadets, a controversial statue removed and new leadership at the helm.
“You have an opportunity to shape and mold and influence the lives of 17- to 21-year-old kids and young men and women to go off and do things that have an impact in the country and in the world,” said Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, VMI’s interim superintendent.
Now interim superintendent Wins was once Cadet Wins. His decision to leave Maryland and come to VMI was based largely on the opportunity to play Division One basketball.
The superstar athlete scored the very first basket inside Cameron Hall.
“Maybe that had, in some way shape or form instilled, in me that being the first to accomplish something is not a bad thing,” Wins said.
Breaking down barriers and being the first would define Wins his entire life.
“I think the most important thing for me growing up was just the desire to be the first in my family to get a college education. Nobody had had a college education before me and my father always stressed the importance of education,” Wins said.
He lived out his father’s dream, graduating from VMI in 1985. Wins went on to serve in the army for 34 years, decades marked by countless leadership roles and impressive accolades. A career, once again bringing him many more firsts.
Then last fall, a year after retiring, he was met with a first he never saw coming.
“I view my time as the interim superintendent as being the first superintendent who also is African American and for me, like a number of other things that have happened in my life, I’ve kind of come full circle,” Wins said. “It means that I get to be an example. I represent a type of visual example of inclusivity. It represents to people who might be detractors an opportunity to show them that if you have a problem with an outward appearance, I’m no different than anybody else.”
Wins arrived on post as VMI was in a tailspin, with allegations of racism, catching nationwide attention and sparking a state-ordered investigation.
“I don’t think I was asked to come be a person to just kind of navigate us through status quo. I think that I was asked to come down and at least begin the implementation of the right change,” Wins said.
In the meantime, Wins is drafting his own assessment of VMI’s culture, taking any claims of racism very seriously, which is an issue he knows all too well.
“I can’t say that I have not experienced throughout my life times when I felt that the color of my skin might’ve affected someone’s perception of me or how they dealt with me,” Wins said. “I go back to the lessons that I learned from my father, which was to never let that be something that holds you back. Sometimes you have to work twice as hard to get the respect that you deserve and so it was just a matter of me always kind of rolling up my sleeves and just being more determined.”
Along with being a trailblazer in so many ways, that determination is another one of his defining characteristics. Wins, much more than just a last name, but a mindset.
“When you kind of get knocked down, you can choose to do one of two things. You can stay down or you get back up and you get back up fighting hard. It was always in my nature to get back up and fight,” Wins said.
That’s something he hopes to instill in cadets, leading by example at a school under the spotlight and creating change.