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A year ago Ellis James had never even heard of an alidade, much less imagined he'd be peering through one on the deck of a Coast Guard ship.
No one in his family has served in the military, and he planned to be an accountant.
Yet Sunday on the bridge of the Coast Guard barque Eagle, James was using the instrument that determines bearings to spot fixed points on the Connecticut shoreline and calculate the ship's distance from them.
"I had no clue I would be doing this at all," said James, 23, of Jamesville, N.C. "But I've learned so much and I've seen so much already. It has me. It has a hold on me."
An academic standout at Fayetteville State University, James interned at the national professional association for certified public accountants and worked with the local chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants.
James' life changed course when he learned about a Coast Guard recruiting program that pays select juniors and seniors a salary and reimburses up to two years of tuition at historically black colleges and universities, as well as Hispanic-serving institutions, tribal colleges and schools in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska. No one could beat that offer, James said.
The College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative is one of the ways the Coast Guard is trying to attract talented people and diversify its officer corps.
Several of James' classmates in Officer Candidate School, who are training for two weeks on Eagle along Connecticut's coast and south of Long Island, said they, too, would not have joined the Coast Guard if it weren't for the program, either because they just didn't know a lot about the service or they had other plans.
One was going to be a physical therapist. Another was studying psychology.
But once they learned about the Coast Guard and its missions, they were hooked. Now they are future leaders, who say they can help the Coast Guard approach problems in new ways and relate to the public it serves.
The Coast Guard isn't diversifying just for the sake of it, they said.
"When you bring in people from everywhere, different races, different cultures, you bring in different points of view," said Jorge Santiago, 23, of Puerto Rico. "It will give the Coast Guard a whole new way of seeing things."
"It's a new Coast Guard," said James, who graduated in May.
Other languages spoken
When Santiago wanted to know what time he could leave his station, he asked one of his Puerto Rican classmates in Spanish.
When the officer candidates were allowed to use their cell phones Sunday night for the first time since starting school Aug. 9, Vincent Li walked across the deck talking with his mother in Mandarin.
The Coast Guard has stations across the country and it needs officers who can connect with, and communicate with, a diverse public, as well as the service's enlisted members, who are a more diverse group, said Lt. Jim Bendle, assistant school chief of OCS.
The people in distress whom the Coast Guard is called on to rescue do not always speak English. The Coast Guard encounters many Portuguese fishermen on its fisheries patrols in New England, Bendle said.
"It's important that we don't all act the same or look the same, but we serve the same purpose," he said.
Brittany Barton, 23, a biology major from Belews Creek, N.C., said women and minorities are still making strides in the military, which is important because "if you only have a leader of one type, it doesn't set a good example in terms of who can be a leader."
Barton was enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro but transferred to North Carolina A&T State University to qualify for the CSPI program and become the first in her family to join the military. If she hadn't been accepted, she would've gone into the medical field.
"It's a fantastic program because it's a way to get people in who may not have otherwise considered the military," she said. "We all have our own strengths that we can use to help in one way or another."
Li, 22, was the first in his family born in the United States.
"We deal with assets and people from different nations constantly," said Li, who lives in Houston. "It's an added benefit if they can relate to us, where we're coming from, and we can relate to them. We can reach out to more people."
On Sunday during his shift, Li updated the officer who was driving the ship on Eagle's course and potential hazards along the way every three minutes. The crew performed a 21-gun salute off Long Island near the site of a battle during the War of 1812 between a previous cutter named Eagle and a British brig, before anchoring for the night in Niantic Bay.
Li was studying kinesiology at the University of Houston and working full-time when a family friend told him about CSPI, pronounced "Sea-Spy."
Getting into an officer class is competitive — there were 70 places this fiscal year, which is down from about 120 as the Coast Guard retains more people and commissions fewer officers. More than 450 people applied for the spots that were not identified for the CSPI program.
Some of Li's classmates applied three times or more. Li said he was honored and humbled to have been chosen.
"It's an inspiration knowing the Coast Guard selected me," he said. "... I bear that responsibility and I know the Coast Guard's expectations of me are also higher."
Santiago was studying psychology in Puerto Rico when he met a recruiter. He said he fell in love with the Coast Guard's missions and the jobs one could do.
He said it would be a privilege to have a career in the Coast Guard. And, Santiago said, he hopes to inspire other young Puerto Ricans to join.
"I try to do it right now, every day, leading by example," he said. "And they'll say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.'"
'A different Coast Guard'
For years the Coast Guard recruited officers by sending cadets at the Coast Guard Academy back to their high schools to talk with students. As a result, the incoming students often were similar to the outgoing ones.
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the commandant of the Coast Guard, said the problem can't be fixed overnight but he's pleased with the way CSPI, which began in 1998, has helped diversify the service. No money was allocated specifically for CSPI in the budget.
"We take discretionary funds, which we have very little of, and put them toward our most important programs," Papp said in an interview this month. "I think the fact that we're putting money into this from discretionary funding indicates how important this is to me and to the Coast Guard."
Of the 42 officer candidates on board Eagle, 19 students came from CSPI and most of the others served previously in enlisted jobs.
The Coast Guard's job has grown more complicated over the years, said Capt. Raymond "Wes" Pulver, commanding officer of the training ship Eagle. The service needs to draw from more of the nation's talent, he added.
"Will we be a better Coast Guard down the line?" Pulver said. "Absolutely."
Robby Chavez, an officer candidate who served for eight years, said people are not as set in their ways as when he first joined. At that time, he said, a common rationale was, "That's the way we've always done it." Now, he said, there's more of a realization that there are other ways.
"You're more likely to find a different, more efficient way with different perspectives," said Chavez, 30, of Las Vegas. "It's definitely a different Coast Guard."
As she sat on the deck Sunday memorizing the names of the ship's 190 lines, Shanita Thomas, 22, of Atlanta, said she's proud to be a part of a group that can help "enhance" the Coast Guard — from how it looks and thinks to the way it functions daily. Thomas studied civil engineering at North Carolina A&T State University.
"Each day the Coast Guard is progressing in a new direction," she said. "And it all starts with the leaders in training coming up with different ways to do things."