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New London - First came the Coast Guard Authorization Act, which Congress approved last fall.
This gave the Coast Guard Academy - for the first time - the leeway to consider an applicant's sex, race, color and religious beliefs as it shapes the makeup of its classes. The act struck down the provision in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations that prohibited the academy from considering those characteristics of an applicant.
But the act is just the beginning.
"The thing that is going to change the diversity at the academy is us getting off our butts and going out into areas where we haven't recruited before," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. asserted in a recent interview.
"We acknowledge that a lot of people don't know about the Coast Guard. What are we doing about it?" Papp demanded. "We need to let them know about the opportunities, let them know they can have challenging careers and get their education paid for, and I think people will come."
Maria Abreu may be just the type of student Papp is talking about.
The tennis standout at New London High School gets good grades and participates in the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps unit.
She is also a first-generation American of Dominican ancestry and a woman, both of which make her a minority among applicants to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. And now, the academy board that reviews applications can consider those attributes as it weighs Abreu's application, and others.
But, the heads of the academy acknowledge, after the change in the law, the next step is just as important.
The academy needs more high-performing applicants from underrepresented minorities, said Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe, the school's superintendent.
"You want the number to be really high so that you can select the very best, and have more underrepresented minorities, or more women, or more men, more anything, to choose from," Burhoe said.
Women have excelled
The percentage of minority cadets in each academy class has traditionally hovered around 16 percent even though more than one third of the U.S. population belongs to a minority group. Women, who were first admitted to the academy in 1976, typically make up about 30 percent of each class.
In recent years, at least, the academy has been able to attract women applicants.
Capt. Stephan Finton, the academy's director of admissions, said women have wanted to come to the academy because of its inclusive culture, small school environment, nationally ranked sports teams and the opportunity to serve in all of the Coast Guard's mission areas after graduation.
"Every graduate is guaranteed a job, and every job is available to both genders," he said, adding that women excelled and the word spread, creating even more of an interest in the school among women. He expects the same thing to happen, over time, with minority students.
Last year the academy stepped up its efforts to recruit in cities, to host educators and minority students on campus and to advertise in outlets where it lacked a presence before. It now advertises on Black Entertainment Television, for example.
The Coast Guard doubled the academy's budget for admissions, previously about $1.4 million, so the school could do more diversity and outreach recruiting.
For the class of 2014 - the current freshmen or fourth-class cadets - the percentage of underrepresented minority students climbed to 24 percent. The outreach efforts continue this year, and Papp said he "fully expects" to see a more diverse student population at the academy.
Feb. 1 is the application deadline for the class of 2015. Abreu has applied, and she hopes the changes accomplished by the Coast Guard Authorization Act will help her chances. Last year 2,200 students applied, and 400 were accepted to fill 290 spots.
"I won't get my hopes up about it too much because in the end, they can't just choose someone because of their ethnicity," said Abreu, who is 18. "They have to look at the whole package."
The quality of the minority students who are applying is "phenomenal," said Antonio Farias, the academy's director of diversity affairs.
"What we're really trying to debunk is this myth that diversity means 'less than,' that we've somehow lowered the standards, and that these cadets are not as qualified," he said. "They're hyper-qualified. We know the talent pool is there, and anyone who would think otherwise, I would question their point of view."
The academy looks for well-educated, physically fit students who have demonstrated leadership in their high schools and communities. The sorting of applications eventually gets to a point where all the remaining students are qualified, but the number of places is limited.
At that point, Burhoe said, it would be appropriate to consider the composition of the class in making decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that race can be used in university admission decisions, but limited how much of a factor it could play. Selective universities looking to diversify could consider race, but the Coast Guard Academy never could.
Qualified students of all races have been turned down in past years because of the small class sizes. At the same time, members of Congress were trying to bring the academy's admissions process in line with the other service academies to increase diversity.
The other military service academies admit students by congressional nomination, while the Coast Guard Academy has traditionally admitted students on the basis of academic merit, like civilian colleges and universities.
"The criticism of the academy's lack of diversity has been strong over the last four years," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and a member of the academy's Board of Visitors. He added that a nomination system wouldn't work given the small size of each incoming class to the academy compared to the size of Congress.
Eliminating the language in the U.S. Code, Courtney said, was the middle-ground solution that the Coast Guard preferred. Courtney said the academy has everything it needs, legally speaking, to diversify the student body.
The academy will get its first female superintendent when Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz takes over this summer.
"At the end of the day, it really takes leadership and execution to make it work," Courtney said. "Everything I've heard about the new superintendent suggests that will be there. Clearly the ball is in their court."
Based on the applications the academy has received so far, Finton, the admissions director, said the class that arrives at the school June 27 will be even "more talented and more diverse." The class of 2014 is 31 percent female, and Finton expects even more women in the class of 2015.
At New London High School, more than 75 percent of the student body belongs to minority groups. Hispanics make up 40 percent. Abreu has met many different people there with varied world views.
She hopes her college experience will be similar. "If one person is confined to a certain race their entire life," she said, "they will be very ignorant of the world, how it works and the people in it."