Welcome aboard, swabs
New London— The faces of the students starting at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Monday looked different, but they shared the same petrified expression.
The academy's Class of 2015 is the most diverse in the school's history. Of the 292 students who arrived Monday, 34 percent are minorities and 34 percent are women. Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, academy superintendent, said the class "breaks records for drawing the best young men and women from the richness of American society."
"This richly diverse class will bring new perspectives, broaden thinking and enable us to best prepare our cadet corps for service in the increasingly dynamic, multicultural world," Stosz said before she administered the oath of office to the class.
But the first day, known as reporting-in day, was very much the same as in years past, marked by yelling and in-your-face tactics to introduce the new students, or swabs, to the military lifestyle. The senior cadets yell so much that many lose their voices. By mid-week they are whispering.
It's a day the new swabs will never forget. Everything in their lives changes.
Brynna Cooke, who lives in Salem and just graduated from East Lyme High School, said the hardest part was learning the formal way to greet cadets and officers since they are expected to remember their leaders' names immediately.
"You have to greet them by name even after you meet them for five seconds and you can't look at their nametags," said Cooke, 17.
She described the first day as surreal.
"You don't do anything right here today," she said.
Marie Yacone had to stand in front of a picture of a tanker taped to the wall of the barracks repeating the phrase "I will keep my eyes in the boat, sir." Yacone, 17, of Stafford, Va., made the mistake of looking up at a senior cadet rather than looking straight ahead, which is known as "eyes in the boat." She said after that the day was certainly "a little frazzling."
Yacone considered going to the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which both her parents graduated, but she liked the fact that the Coast Guard Academy has a high percentage of female cadets. She said she was inspired by Stosz, who became the first female superintendent of a service academy earlier this month.
Stosz and Antonio Farias, director of diversity affairs, said the impact of this diverse class will be felt this fall, when they join the rest of the cadet corps and bring their varied experiences and opinions to discussions both in and out of the classroom.
The goal, Farias said, is complexity, which forces people "to think outside of a stereotype or a box" and engage with others as individuals. Stosz said getting the students in the door is just the first step; she is focused on keeping them there.
"If we can't provide an atmosphere of inclusion that makes them want to stay, then we are not doing something right," she said. "I'll be happy when we graduate them in equitable proportion, and that weighs on me a bit, I think."
Farias will address the students next week during training about the Coast Guard's core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. Farias said he will talk during the session about how the school wasn't always inclusive but is evolving, as well as the communications tools people can use to discuss hot topics such as race.
David Hughes, of Gales Ferry, a recent graduate of Ledyard High School, said meeting people from different backgrounds will help him connect with others as an officer. Hughes, 18, hopes to be a helicopter pilot when he graduates.
He was in the same company as Wathek Ltifi, 21, of Tunisia. Ltifi, who had never been to the United States before, said he wanted to show his abilities and learn about American culture. He plans to graduate and return home to serve in the Navy.
Six international cadets enrolled from the Philippines, Republic of Georgia, Tunisia and Antigua. This year, 4,543 students applied for the Class of 2015 and 374 received appointments.
Minority students made up 24 percent of the incoming class last year, an increase of 8 percent over the previous year.
Jake Boross, a second-class cadet who helped train the swabs Monday, said he would like the academy to get to the point where the diversity statistics aren't even discussed because diverse classes are the norm.
"Then we'll be there," he said.
In the afternoon the class marched onto Washington Parade Field and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. During the next seven weeks they will go through an intense training program designed to transform them into military recruits and prepare them for the academic year.
"It's going to be tough but it's for a greater cause," said Shane Sullivan, 19, of Gales Ferry, who graduated from Ledyard High School in 2010. "It's going to make us all better leaders. I'm excited for the future."
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