Coast Guard Academy takes diversity to a deeper level

New London - Classes entering the U.S. Coast Guard Academy with record numbers of minority students and women are going to transform the way the leadership of the Coast Guard looks.

That could also change the way the Coast Guard acts.

Will the Coast Guard of the future respond to problems differently? Approach its missions differently?

Recently the people who will help answer those questions sat in a room at the academy, surrounded by murals of the service's history, under the watchful eye of a bust of the father of the Coast Guard, Alexander Hamilton.

They are the newest students at the academy and future leaders of the service. A class comprising 34 percent minority students and 34 percent women, it is the most diverse in the academy's history.

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., commandant of the Coast Guard, said Friday that by improving diversity, "we attract and retain the best and brightest our nation has to offer.

"We enrich our team with a broad range of experience, viewpoints and ideas that ultimately make us better across the spectrum of our organization," he said in a statement to The Day. "This simple initiative pays huge dividends that will be vital in serving our nation in the years ahead."

Antonio Farias, the academy's chief diversity officer, spoke to the students in groups of 30 earlier this month about the value of difference, how they could tap into each other's potential to build a team that brings out the best in all of its members.

The way most organizations approach diversity, Farias said, is to bring in people of different races and ethnicities, then tell them to conform to the dominant culture. That, he said, stifles the talents and ideas that the group had sought out in the first place.

"The promise and beauty of diversity is to be able to access those skill sets we desperately need, and that has to be managed," Farias said. "You can't just throw them together. It doesn't work."

In two days of training, Farias led the students through exercises to make them aware of stereotypes they use and begin to break out of them. Get ready to be uncomfortable, he told them.

Thirty-four students stood in a circle as Farias read statements. He told them to step forward into the formation if the statement pertained to them and they felt comfortable sharing.

"Left-handed students."

"Foreign-language speakers."

"Hip-hop enthusiasts."

Then he asked if they knew someone with a drinking problem or an eating disorder?

A victim of sexual assault or abuse?

Someone who committed suicide?

Someone who is part of the gay community?

Did they come from a working-class family?

Ever experience racism, sexism or been made to feel uncomfortable about their socioeconomic status?

Are their parents divorced?

Do they consider themselves part of a racial or ethnic minority?

More than half of the students knew someone with a drinking problem and someone who is gay. About a third had experienced racism or sexism. Fourteen came from a working-class family, 10 had felt uncomfortable about their social standing, nine considered themselves minorities and five had divorced parents.

A male student said after that it was the first time he had encountered people with similar experiences. A female said the exercise emphasized the fact that you shouldn't judge people when you have no idea what they have been through.

"We know this and yet every day we treat people like their labels," Farias said in response to the female student. "We have got 18 to 20 years of imprinting on you and that's what we're working against."

The students' names were not noted by The Day during the discussion, per the academy's request, so they could speak freely.

Farias described the academy as a "giant laboratory," a place for students to become critical thinkers and leaders so the Coast Guard will have the right people with the skills to execute its missions.

Papp said the service must "maintain a workforce that is reflective of the physical ability, gender, ethnic and racial diversity in American society."

"While ships, aircraft and boats are important tools of our profession, Coast Guardsmen are the essential ingredient that ultimately achieves success in the services we provide," he said.

'You're not alone'

Several students agreed to share their impressions of the academy's training afterward. James Sullivan, 18, of Oklahoma, said he realized "people are much deeper than you think and you shouldn't take them at face value." Half Filipino, Sullivan said during the exercise that he had experienced racism. He was surprised to see how many of his classmates had as well.

"It's good to know that you're not alone," he said.

Standing next to her classmates, all wearing the same blue uniform, Julia Mundy said that "being in this environment, everyone is made to be the same and act the same."

"You kind of have to, in a way, support that, and avoid that," said Mundy, 17, of New York.

Michael Giorgio said he thinks his class will work better as a team than any group of professional athletes because of the shared experiences that will bond them at the academy.

"We have the diversity. We're going to be exposed to so many different things," said Giorgio, 19, of Pennsylvania. "It's an opportunity none of us could ever dream of, that we all got the opportunity to have. And we're all going to take advantage of it together. We're all going to succeed. As long as we're working together, nothing can stop us."

Moving forward, Farias said, the best way to engage with students on this topic is through a peer-to-peer approach. The Anti-Defamation League trains cadet volunteers to lead conversations about diversity and respect and cadets can join one of the student-run councils at the academy focused on cultural immersion.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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