Whenever he comes back to campus, Matthew Redbord enters through the main gate off University Parkway and takes an immediate right.
He’ll pass the Rankin Welcome Garden, the Jack and Donna Finch Fountain and look straight ahead.
He’ll see the tree sculpture, look through its stationary branches, and spot in the distance the white pillars of the R.G. Wanek Center.
That, Redbord says, is his favorite sight on campus.
“It makes me feel like I’m home,” he says.
Redbord, a junior finance major from Fort Mill, South Carolina, is a member of HPU’s Air Force ROTC. He’s a unit leader, a Presidential Scholar, a calculus tutor, the recipient of four academic scholarships and a decorated ROTC member who dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
Redbord is one of two Extraordinary Leaders for the month of September.
How that happened had everything to do with Redbord’s initial thoughts when he first arrived at High Point University.
“Matthew,” he told himself. “You’ve got to reinvent yourself.”
‘Time For A New Start’
Redbord grew up near Asbury Park, New Jersey, in a small community beside the Atlantic known as Ocean Township. He was the youngest of two. His mom owned a hair salon, and his dad worked as a regional vice president for Coldwell Banker.
Redbord excelled in Boy Scouts. He rose through the leadership ranks of Troop 76 and became the senior patrol leader. He earned his Eagle Scout the summer before his senior year in high school.
He earned it by planning, organizing and carrying out the construction of a garden shed to help a local food bank store their donations. Afterward, Redbord stepped away from Boy Scouts and lost a feeling he loved.
With Boy Scouts, Redbord entwined his life with acts of service. He participated in local parades, helped nonprofits and led meetings of his fellow Scouts. After Boy Scouts, Redbord saw his opportunities of altruism and leadership wane.
He talked to his parents, Lou and Susan, and told them he felt something was missing in his life. He knew he was going to college, but he mentioned he felt drawn to the military because of its strong sense of service.
“What about ROTC?” his dad said.
At his high school graduation, Redbord looked around and saw other students wearing cords around their necks signifying their academic achievements. Redbord didn’t have any. The only accolades he had received at Ocean Township High involved helping the school’s bowling team win a tournament and rolling a perfect game.
That moment made him realize he didn’t really apply himself as much as he could’ve in high school. Right then, he made a vow to himself.
“Commencement is the beginning of something new,” he told himself. “Time for a new start.”
ROTC became Redbord’s new start, and his beginning would take place at where his sister went to school.
High Point University.
HPU: A Transformative Place
Redbord had helped his sister, Julia, a 2019 HPU graduate, move in several times. He liked the campus, but he felt he wanted to go to a bigger school. His dad, though, talked to him about the attributes of a smaller school, of knowing your professors and getting the extra attention students need.
Redbord came to HPU for Presidential Scholars weekend. He discovered what his dad meant during the weekend’s slate of scholarship interviews.
“If they give this much attention to a potential student,” he thought, “think about how much attention I would get as an actual student.”
It felt right. His sister was on campus, and his parents were closer. They had relocated to Fort Mill, South Carolina, a city just south of Charlotte, because of his dad’s job. Meanwhile, Redbord felt he could start anew.
“High Point has a way of encouraging you to dive deep,” Redbord says. “You see it in that first week when you’re a freshman, and you go to the Involvement Fair. You hear everyone around you stress about getting involved and growing your network, and I know I wanted that sense of brotherhood where I could find people like me who want to be the best version of themselves.
“I found that in Alpha Kappa Psi and with Air Force ROTC,” he says. “High Point has helped me embrace the core values of the Air Force –– integrity first, service before self and excellence in all that you do. That, I believe, reflects who I am.”
The Significance of a Coin
Since coming to HPU, Redbord has made the dean’s list every semester. He’s a member of two honor societies, and this fall, he became the vice president of Alpha Kappa Psi, the professional business fraternity.
Redbord played on HPU’s Ultimate Frisbee club team his freshman year. He loved it. But he knew he had some tough choices to make. The team started practice at 10 p.m. on campus, and he awoke earlier that day at 4:15 a.m. to get ready for ROTC’s physical training.
“Naps and coffee do work,” Redbord says, laughing.
Redbord stepped away from Ultimate Frisbee, and he got more involved in Air Force ROTC.
Redbord talked to HPU officials about booking a shuttle to and from North Carolina A&T University several times a week for their ROTC class and physical fitness training. HPU officials agreed.
He worked with officials to bring other changes to the program, too, such as more scholarship opportunities and earlier access to registering for classes due to their busy training schedules. Redbord hoped these decisions would draw more students into Air Force ROTC. It has. When Redbord started in Air Force ROTC, he joined two other members. This semester, Air Force ROTC has nine members.
This semester, Redbord became his detachment’s physical fitness officer. He gets up at 3:45 a.m. twice a week, drinks two shots of espresso and maps out the morning physical training regimen for more than 80 fellow cadets 30 minutes from campus at N.C. A&T.
They begin exercising at 5:45 a.m.
Yet, his ROTC regimen on campus doesn’t compare to Redbord’s nearly three-week stint this past summer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. There, Redbord participated in the required leadership development course known as Field Training.
To get ready, Redbord exercised with ex-military for weeks before daybreak in Fort Mill. He also practiced drills in his garage using a broom as his flag staff, wrote on index cards quotes and passages he needed to know and read the Field Training manual so many times he knew it by heart.
When Field Training ended at Maxwell Air Force Base, Redbord finished 24th out of 384 other cadets from around the country. He became a distinguished graduate, and his fellow cadets nominated him for the Warrior Spirit award. He also received something he has come to cherish –– a Distinguished Graduate Coin.
Known as a DG Coin, it’s is no bigger than a half dollar. Redbord keeps it on display underneath his bulletin board in his room at Caffey Hall. He sees it every day. To the right of his bulletin board, Redbord has tacked to the wall a 3-by-5 American flag. It’s the first thing he sees every morning.
“That is what I’m most proud of.,” says Redbord of his preparation and strong finish in Field Training. “I set out for an ambitious goal, dedicated myself towards reaching the highest caliber of leadership excellence and left Maxwell as a DG. Excellence is the standard I want to live by.”
A Mentor’s Observation
HPU has transformed Redbord. He feels it. Hillary Kokajko sees it.
Kokajko, a 2006 HPU graduate, works as the university’s assistant vice president for communication management. She volunteers as the liaison for HPU’s Air Force and Army ROTC.
Kokajko knows the military. Her dad, a Vietnam veteran, spent 32 years in the Marines. She got involved with ROTC because of her family’s connection to the military and ROTC’s need for someone to help coordinate with N.C. A&T.
Through her work, she has gotten to know Redbord since his freshman year. She’s seen him build the program, grow into a leader and take responsibility whether it’s carrying a flag during a ceremony or welcoming incoming freshmen to campus.
“At Move-In, he was interacting with families, and he brought people with him to help,” Kokajko says. “That’s par for the course with Matt. That’s the way he rolls.”
At the 2019 Commencement, as part of HPU’s color guard, Redbord wore his dress blues and saw his sister graduate. A photo of that big day hangs in his family’s living room.
The First Landing
In January, Redbord flew a plane for the first time.
He earned a flight scholarship through Air Force ROTC that awarded him 14 hours of flight training at an airport near campus. He stepped into a Cessna 172 and flew over central North Carolina, including HPU.
His flight instructor gave him the stick to fly the plane at every lesson, and Redbord saw the vast sky in front of him and imagined his future. Once, when he veered back to the airport, his flight instructor allowed him to land the plane.
“That whole experience reminded me of the lyric I love from the Air Force song –– ‘Boundless souls dreaming of skies to conquer. Gave us wings, ever to soar,’” Redbord says today. “We had to sing that song every night at Field Training before we went to sleep, and that line has always spoken to me.
“And on that first landing, I really felt that whole image of ‘dreaming of skies to conquer.’ That, I realized, was my future, and I liked what I saw.”