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New London - In a celebration of Black History Month, a group of middle school students on Tuesday met one of only three African Americans serving in an elite Navy program.
Master Chief Xavier Harris is one of 49 people in the Navy's Acoustics Intelligence Specialist program. He described his role to Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School students as the "eyes and ears of the submarine."
Harris, 35, has served in the Navy for 17 years. He visited the school to talk to students about ways they can use what they're learning in science, technology, engineering and math "in the real world."
When he was growing up in Texas, he said, each graduating high school class had about 1,500 kids. He urged the much smaller group of future graduates in front of him to stay focused on their own mission.
He said the most important lesson he's learned in life is that knowledge is power.
"Keep that dedication and that focus you have now and keep it as you go on, because you'll see that school size shrink as people lose their own focus as to what's going on," Harris said. "... You're already on your path, you're way ahead of me. I was nowhere near that when I was your age."
Harris was five years into his career in the Navy before he began pursuing his bachelor's degree. While he's happy with his accomplishments, he said the better choice after high school would have been to continue on to college.
ACINT specialists are experts in the acoustics, tactics and operational capabilities of naval ships worldwide, and they advise the commanding officers of submarines and surface ships on tactics during missions. The program was created in 1962 during the Cold War.
Most of Harris' work is classified, meaning he couldn't go into many details with the students.
To get ready for a mission, Harris said, he looks at every operation in a specific area over the last 40 to 50 years, to "get the ins and outs" of any interaction that could possibly occur. He spent nearly two years in intensive training for the job and has amassed knowledge about foreign navies.
For someone who specializes in using sonar to detect objects underwater, Harris said, "This is the top." About the knowledge level these specialists have and how much the commanding officer relies on them, he said, "You want to be that. You want that responsibility."
Harris, who qualified as a specialist in December 2006, is the intelligence department master chief at Submarine Group Two. He previously served in Groton on the USS Springfield (SSN 761).
Students Tuesday asked Harris quick rounds of questions that included whether he's been seasick, if he's been to Antarctica, how long he's been underwater on a submarine and how he entertains himself on the submarine.
Because of the nature of his work, Harris spends a lot of time away from his wife and two teenage children, who live in Lisbon. The average ACINT specialist spends nearly half of each year at sea, he said.
Harris said he's willing to do so because the job is challenging and fun.
"You never know what you're going to get when you step foot on that boat. You could plan for what you want to happen, but it never goes down that way," he said.
Staff Writer Jennifer McDermott contributed to this report.