Published June 25. 2012 6:00PM Updated June 26. 2012 7:03PM
New London — The smallest class in more than a decade arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Monday.
The Coast Guard is going to commission fewer young officers because many of the people who are already in the service aren't leaving. The military's retention rates are at record levels as people choose the job stability of the service over taking their chances in a struggling economy.
And like the rest of the military, the Coast Guard has to downsize. With the proposed cuts to defense spending in the 2013 budget, the service stands to lose 1,000 people.
Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, said in an interview that the slight reduction at the academy this year is "just the start of perhaps going down a little further."
248 students sworn in
A typical class starts with close to 300 students. For the Class of 2016, 248 students were sworn in, making it a small but diverse class. Monday was reporting-in day and 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.
With 36 percent women and 35 percent minority students, it is the most diverse class in the academy's history. Last year, the incoming class set a record with 34 percent women and 34 percent minority students.
Raddae Chew said the uptick in the number of women and minority students at the school was one reason she decided to join the class. As a junior in high school, Chew, 19, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., went to one of the academy's campus visit programs for underrepresented minority and first-generation college students.
"Opportunity of lifetime"
"I figured it was the opportunity of a lifetime," Chew said as she tried on shoes Monday in the bookstore.
Chew described the first day as "structured chaos."
The Chase Hall barracks rang out with the voices of upper-class cadets yelling instructions at the new students, or swabs, who had to stay in the center of the hall and square, or sharply pivot, around each corner, all while looking straight ahead and greeting people correctly.
"I'm going to teach you how to square because you look like a train wreck," Larla Brown, a second-class cadet, screamed at Echo Company.
Thomas Bondurant, a second-class cadet, chastised the company for forgetting his name. He said after the swabs are "in shock."
"Some are just so befuddled they can't really speak," he said.
Hayley Smith was not as befuddled by the military commands as some, having spent a year in preparatory school and four years in the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps unit at New London High School.
"If you pay attention to them, they're telling you things you need to know. It's not just pointless yelling," said Smith, 19, of Scotland.
Smith said swab summer is "a challenge and an opportunity to excel."
Steele Johnson, a first-class cadet and Alpha Company commander, said it's important the swabs begin to rely on their classmates.
"Maybe they won't have trouble in school or adjusting to the military lifestyle but they need help doing both. It's hard to handle on your own," he said. "We want to make that point now so they don't realize it later when they're failing a class."
At the end of the summer, he said, "they will feel like they accomplished something personally and as a group."
The last time an incoming class started with close to 250 students was in 1999, when 240 students entered the academy. By graduation, the incoming class will likely be closer to 200 since the retention rate is about 80 percent.
Papp is looking for more of a mix of officers from the academy and the 17-week Officer Candidate School. The OCS classes have been reduced in past years to accommodate the large numbers of officers graduating from the academy, he said.
The retention rate for officers has been about 94 percent during the past three fiscal years, according to the Coast Guard. The rate for enlisted personnel is slightly lower.
The academy is the Coast Guard's primary source of officers with engineering degrees. Officer Candidate School is a way for people who are already serving in the Coast Guard in enlisted roles or who have an undergraduate degree to become officers.
"We need a mix of specialties and individuals of different backgrounds and education," Papp said.
Smaller classes will put less pressure on the academy's facilities, Papp said. The Coast Guard made an offer to purchase a portion of the abutting Riverside Park to use for expansion, but city residents voted down that sale in November.
Given the budget climate, Papp said funding for additional land in New London "will not be forthcoming." He said his top priority is recapitalizing the aging fleet of ships and aircraft, which are becoming increasingly more expensive to maintain.
For high school students interested in the academy, the changes mean the school will be harder to get into.
Of the roughly 2,000 students who completed applications for the Class of 2016, 315 were offered appointments and 251 students from 39 states accepted, including 17 from Connecticut. The average SAT score is 60 points higher than last year. Five international students also joined the class.
Capt. Stephan P. Finton, the academy's director of admissions, said it will be more competitive simply because "there are just fewer slots."
"The quality of the student, I'd like to think, will be better," he said. "But they're all amazing students. This class is going to be amazing."
Matthew Navetta said he was proud to have been selected.
"I did pretty well in high school so I think I deserve a spot. I'm just trying to prove myself," Navetta, 17, of Oakdale, said after getting his head shaved at the barber shop.
The rain, heavy at times, cleared by the afternoon. The class marched onto Washington Parade Field and swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
"I just felt it was my purpose in life to be here," said Hayden Hughes, 19, of Charlotte, N.C. "It's going to be hard but it's supposed to be. They're making us better."