WILMINGTON — In August, Ragan Freitag accomplished something no other woman has ever done. The trail-blazer was the first woman to take only three years, instead of the usual four, to make it through the grueling South Carolina military college, The Citadel. Then, this week — as if ordinary life wasn’t fast-paced enough for her — Freitag, 21, is in line to become Wilmington’s newest, and probably youngest, alderman.
It’s believed the city council would approve Mayor Tony McGann’s recommendation that Freitag replace former alderman Bob Kernc, who resigned in August. The position has seven months remaining until spring elections, when a full-term alderman will be elected. Freitag is considering running then for continuation of her term.
“I think she’ll make an outstanding alderman,” said McGann. “It’s great that someone of her age is interested and involved in municipal government. She’s a credit to her city.”
McGann said he had several discussions with Freitag about the responsibilities of being an alderman before recommending her to the council. He said her successful perseverance through The Citadel and her plans to attend law school were key in his decision.
“I’m so excited,” said Freitag. “I’m honored that I was even considered. I want to show the city of Wilmington and surrounding communities that it’s good to bring a younger community into the government. I hope to be a role model for young people to get involved.”
Freitag plans to pursue a political career after law school, to which she is now applying. She hopes to study law in the Chicago area.
Her dream of pursuing a political career began with her wish to attend a military university when she was just a child.
“My dad was in military intelligence in Vietnam,” she said. “I’ve always looked up to my dad and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
When she was a teen-ager, she read that The Citadel had begun accepting women, and she knew right away that was the place for her. Freitag first had to overcome substantial odds just to gain a spot there.
Hundreds of applicants are rejected each year by the exclusive school — only 20 percent who apply get in. And until 1995, The Citadel was an all-male college, with a rich southern tradition dating back to 1842. It took a federal court order for the college to admit its first female student seven years ago.
The nation watched as Shannon Faulkner stumbled, then dropped out. The next year, four women were admitted, but only two made it through their freshman year. Of the 2,000 students enrolled in The Citadel this year, a little more than 100 — five percent — are women. Freitag’s class was only the third graduating class of women.
The graduate said she felt there was still some tension about women attending the school.
“It changed their environment,” she said. “Overall, they’re still getting used to us being there. But with each year, there are more and more of us coming in and as the women begin to serve in higher positions and serve as role models for the younger women coming in, it gets better.”
More than a third of Freitag’s class dropped out; most during the first week, known as “hell week.”
Throughout her three years there, Freitag pulled late nights and rose with the sun to get her work done. She only slept about four hours each night. Academics were similar to other universities, she said, but The Citadel also required health and nutrition and ROTC classes. Freitag chose the army out of the four branches of services and took courses in map reading, military courtesy, and field movements, among others.
She also participated in drills and physical training tests.
The Citadel requires strict dress codes of its students. Freitag had about 15 different uniforms, one for each event in which she participated.
Her hair was cut short the first day — shaved around the sides and back “three fingers up.” The rest was less than three inches long. The short locks didn’t bother Freitag much, though.
“I came in with hair to my shoulders,” she said. “They saved me `til last. Mine was the longest. It really didn’t matter much to me, though. I was just so excited to be there.”
Freitag said even harder than being one of the few women there was being an even rarer Northerner.
“Not only was I a girl,” she said, “but I was a Yankee. Most of the students were Southerners. They were from South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee. We had to respond to everyone by saying, `Yes, sir’ or `No, ma’am.’ They grew up with it. It’s part of the culture there. It was really hard for me to do that. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Now, I think it’s wonderful to use that. It’s respect.”
Graduating from the rigorous South Carolina college is difficult enough with a normal course load, but Freitag managed to squeeze extra classes in to her already tight schedule and take summer classes — some at Joliet Junior College –to graduate one year early. She became an overachiever on a campus of overachievers.
“It was extraordinarily hard,” she said, “But I’ve always been an over- achiever. I thought, `If I can do it, why not?’ It was just one more challenge to overcome.”
She’s working as an intern for Congressman Jerry Weller and at the Joliet law firm, Rathbun, Cservenyak, and Kozol.
The best part about being home? “Not having to wear a uniform,” she said. “And getting to grow my hair out. I’m looking forward to going into the next stage of my life.”