“Always Ready, Always There”: Mason graduate student named the top ROTC Cadet in the nation


Bryan Vega never expected that, at 33 years old, he would be named the number one Army ROTC Cadet in the country.

But if Vega, a graduate student in George Mason University’s College of Engineering and Computing working toward his master’s in data analytics engineering, has learned anything from his lengthy career, it’s that he can never count himself out. 

Bryan Vega poses for the camera in a black suit and blue shirt and tie.
Photo provided. 

Vega’s path starts with a dream: to become an Army officer. He enlisted in the Army National Guard almost 15 years ago and pursued his undergraduate degree at The Ohio State University while enrolled in their ROTC program. Degree planning is an important component of being commissioned as an officer upon graduation; switching majors made it difficult for Vega to meet the required standards within the few months prior to graduating. 

After earning his undergraduate degree, he continued his work with the Army National Guard, first with Florida (FLARNG) and then with Virginia (VAARNG). “It was all about timing,” Vega said of the wait to become an officer. “Everything happens for a reason, so I was just waiting for the right opportunity to take that next step toward being commissioned as an officer.” 

In 2018, Vega was accepted into the newly formed 91st Cyber Brigade, the Army National Guard’s first, and only, cyber brigade. “I had developed an interest in the coding, data science, and artificial intelligence side of things during my work in military intelligence with the Army National Guard and in my civilian career developing and integrating artificial intelligence/machine learning and cyber solutions to both public and private sector,” he said. “The Cyber Brigade felt like the right move.” 

It was. The connections he made in the 91st encouraged him to pursue commissioning through ROTC, for which he was still eligible. “I decided to knock two things out at once: officer status and a master’s degree. Mason had both a good ROTC program and a strong artificial intelligence and machine-learning education pipeline.”

So how does one become the number one ROTC cadet in the nation? Through the Order of Merit List (OML), which ranks every cadet via a points system. Throughout the year, Army ROTC Cadets earn points in different categories for various activities and accomplishments. These categories—such as physical fitness, GPA, athletics, extracurriculars, and employment status—have varying weights and point values within those categories. For example, extracurricular involvement overall is not weighted as heavily as GPA and STEM academic alignment (also known as degree pathway), so leading multiple clubs won’t necessarily balance out a low GPA. 

At the end of the Army fiscal year, the points are tabulated, and every ROTC cadet across the nation is ranked based on their overall accessions point value, creating the OML. OML rank is more than just an achievement: higher ranking cadets on the OML will have a higher chance of receiving their first pick of branch preference upon commissioning. 

“I was surprised. Shocked, honestly,” Vega said, of the announcement that he ranked number one. “I’m not as fit as my younger members; I didn't think I had a chance. It just goes to show what you can accomplish with the right support."

That refrain of support was critical to Vega’s success: not only the support he received, but the support he was able to provide. 

Mason’s ROTC program, Vega said, has supported him and his commitments to full-time employment with his civilian career as Lead Data Scientist (AI/ML), part-time with the National Guard, his growing family, and his rigorous graduate studies. As a university renowned for providing veterans with quality education, Mason’s support of post-traditional students in ROTC is yet another testament to the university’s commitment to inclusive and accessible education and career opportunities. 

“Having been in ROTC at another institution, I can say that Mason ROTC’s flexibility and adaptability is incredible. And my advisor in CEC has worked hard to find classes for me that will make sure I complete the degree on time while being able to work full-time and fulfill all my duties as a cadet, a husband, a father, and a member of the VAARNG.” 

And for Vega, he paid that support forward through his own informal mentoring of the other cadets. “Being further along in life, I had a lot I could teach them. And the commissioned and noncommissioned officers in our program encouraged that transfer of knowledge. It helped all of us, me learning from them and them learning from me.”

Vega looks forward to walking across the stage at Spring Commencement 2024 with his peers, with a plan to finish his degree over the summer. His future, hopefully as a soon-to-be commissioned officer, is bright.