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New London - One young man from the Philippines enrolled at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1971 and became the first international student in the school's history.
Four decades later, 121 students from 37 countries have graduated and gone on to serve as military officers and leaders of their respective nations.
When the Class of 2017 arrives at the academy today, eight international students will join the cadet corps - the most ever in one class. Three are from Mexico.
Mexican navy Capt. Saúl Bandala said his country's participation in the International Cadet Program for the first time this year "was an excellent opportunity for the navy to strengthen the links we have." He said he was impressed with the number of faculty "dedicated to forming these future leaders."
"It will be very nourishing and interesting for our cadets to learn from the experience acquired here throughout the years," he said.
Capt. Eric C. Jones, the academy's assistant superintendent, said the Coast Guard works with so many other nations, "we have a vested interest in having officers out there in the world's coast guards and the world's navies that have exposure to what we do." And, he said, it's important that the Coast Guard's future officers understand other cultures since many of them will visit foreign ports.
Today is the start of swab summer, an intense, seven-week program designed to transform civilian students into military recruits and prepare them for the academic year. The academy expects 235 students, of whom 28 percent are minority students and 36 percent are women. Seventeen are from Connecticut.
The class is smaller than the Class of 2016, which began last summer with 248 students, the smallest class in more than a decade. The Coast Guard is commissioning fewer officers because retention rates are at record levels and the military is downsizing.
The international students attended an orientation program last week. The group met with academy officials and toured the school on Wednesday.
As she wandered the grounds, Ruth Tress Salvatori, 18, who is from Mexico, said she came to Connecticut because "it seemed for me, a great opportunity to improve my skills and become a better leader so I can improve things in my own country."
"We're trying to improve our relationship with the (U.S.) Coast Guard and we're working to have a better control of our coasts," she said. "I really want to be part of that."
Mexico does not have a coast guard. Its navy, the Secretaría de Marina, stops drug traffickers, protects ports and infrastructure and responds to natural disasters, much as the U.S. Coast Guard does. The two services often collaborate on drug enforcement and search and rescue cases.
Luis Marban Terrazas, 19, who is also from Mexico, said he plans to learn all he can about the U.S. Coast Guard so he can "take all the good things here and the good things in Mexico and do something better."
The cadets from Mexico will return home to serve in their navy after graduating. They have to serve for 18 years, or three years for each year they studied abroad and another six years because they previously spent three years at the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar, the naval academy in Veracruz, Bandala said. Bandala, who works on the navy's staff in Mexico City, accompanied them to New London to meet with academy officials during the orientation program.
Dana Fleischmann, an assistant football coach, and Aylene Ilkson, head coach of the women's volleyball team, spoke with the international students about the sports the academy offers. Before they began the presentation, Ilkson said she was eager to meet Marta Ulloa Maldonado, of Honduras, who she had heard is a skilled setter.
No international students have ever joined the football team, Fleischmann said, but some have competed in swimming, track and field and basketball.
Ulloa Maldonado, 18, said she hopes to play volleyball but her main goal is to learn how to stop the flow of illegal drugs into Honduras.
"Honduras is under a lot of drug trafficking problems," she said. "I want to prevent that from happening. Honduras is seen as the most violent country, and that's not true. If I graduate, I'd like to help stop that problem."
The academy can have up to 36 international students. There are 24 now, including the incoming freshmen from Mexico, Honduras, Georgia and the Marshall Islands.
More than 50 students from 12 countries applied for an appointment to the Class of 2017. International students do not take the place of U.S. cadets; the enrollments are done separately, Jones said. Jones said he would like each class to have eight international students in the future, instead of the usual three to five.
Cadets bond with their international classmates, Jones said, and they often keep in touch long after their academy days.
Jones previously commanded the Coast Guard barque Eagle. When he took the ship to Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2011, the deputy chief of the Icelandic Coast Guard, Ásgrímur L. Ásgrímsson, greeted the barque.
Jones knows him as "Ási." They were classmates at the academy.
"Working on the sea challenges people. No matter what their race, creed, color or gender, they have that in common," Jones said.
The enthusiastic and talented young men and women from across the country and around the world who are beginning this four-year journey together, Jones said, will share their experiences at sea and at the academy "forever, like Ási and I do."