NEW LONDON, Conn. – New recruits at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy are supposed to look straight ahead, but Rasheed Breland was able to glance at his classmates long enough to realize that many besides him were minorities.
Swabs from racial and ethnic minority groups make up 24 percent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 2014—the second highest percentage in the school’s history, surpassed only by one class that was a percentage point higher.
The academy has been criticized for its lack of racial and ethnic diversity, with some in Congress attempting to bring the admissions process in line with the other service academies to increase diversity.
Monday, June 28, was the first day of swab summer, an intense, seven-week training program designed to transform civilian students into military recruits and to prepare them for the academic year. Of the 290 who reported that day, 36 were Hispanic, 15 Black, 13 Asian, five Pacific Islander, and one Native American. Six international students are also attending.
About 2,200 high school students applied for the Class of 2014. Fewer than 400 were accepted.
The other service academies admit students by congressional nomination, while the Coast Guard Academy has traditionally admitted students on the basis of academic merit, much like civilian colleges and universities.
Breland, whose father retired from the Coast Guard as a chief petty officer, spent a year at a preparatory school so he could get into the academy. He was also one of 18 students who attended a pre-orientation program for minority and international students, offered for the first time this year at the academy. They arrived at the school on Friday, days before the other swabs, to get to know each other, meet the faculty and staff, and learn about the support services offered on campus.
Breland, 19, of Hampton, Va., said the academy’s efforts will enhance his experience there.
“There’s more diversity instead of all the same race at the academy,” he said. “It will get more culture into the academy.”
The percentage of minorities in each class has traditionally hovered around 15 percent. The school has fared better with women, who typically make up about 30 percent of each class. The incoming class of 2014 is 31 percent female.
The Coast Guard commandant and academy officials acknowledge that the student body needs to be more diverse, but they have argued that changing the school’s admissions process is not the way to do it.
Instead, the academy is spending more to advertise, recruit and host educators and minority students on campus. The academy is also sending more students to preparatory school to meet the academy’s requirements.
Rear Admiral J. Scott Burhoe, academy superintendent, wants minorities to comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the student body by 2015.
The Class of 2014, Burhoe said, is the beginning of the corps of cadets being “reflective of the nation we serve.” He said the academy will become a “better institution” as the number of minorities increases.
Most of the new swabs, however, were not focused Monday on the changes going on at the academy; they just wanted to make it through the day.
Senior cadets yelled at the swabs and ordered them around from the moment they stepped off the bus that morning in front of their new home, Chase Hall.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Evin Moses, a second-class cadet, yelled. “Wipe that smile off your face!”
Once inside, the 37 members of Foxtrot Company were told to change into blue Coast Guard shorts and a gray academy T-shirt.
Moses and the rest of the cadets in charge of the training kicked the closed doors. “Why are you taking so long?” screamed Nicholas Cosenza, a second-class cadet, his face turning red from yelling so loudly. “I take a lot of pride in Foxtrot, and the standard is perfection!”
J. Matthew Hurtt, of Old Lyme, introduced himself.
“My name is 2nd Class Hurtt, like the pain you’re going to feel in the next seven weeks,” he said.
The group learned how to “sound off,” with the first person in line calling out “01” up to the last, “37.” One mistake meant they had to start over. They learned the formal way to greet cadets and officers, and they were expected to remember their leaders’ names immediately.
Swabs were hustled around the academy to fill out paperwork, pick up uniforms, get haircuts and practice marching. Parents wandered around the grounds, hoping to get a glimpse of their children and the new life they will lead.
Hurtt said the day is a “wake-up call” for the swabs.
“They have chosen a path that requires them to be a more developed person at an earlier age, and they have to understand the ramifications of that action,” he said.
By the end of the day, the hours of in-your-face tactics began to take a toll on the newest members of the academy.
“It’s been an interesting experience,” said Marie Navetta, 17, of Montville, one of nine swabs from Connecticut. “I’m a little nervous. I hope I can handle it. I’ve just got to take it day by day.”
“It’s only going to get better,” said Carlos Quintero, 19, of Philadelphia.
Kevin La Mothe, 18, of Victorville, Calif., added, “They put you right in the fire, but we’re all going to succeed together.”
Brandy Lowary, 18, of Danville, Iowa, said it was a “great honor” to be accepted into the academy.
As Monday ended, only one female swab had opted to leave the program, not joining the other 289 new arrivals in taking the oath that is part of the process.
But Breland called his first day “outstanding,” marching onto Washington Parade Field with the rest of the Class of 2014, raising his right hand and swearing that same oath—to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.