One year in, first female superintendent deflects spotlight so it shines on academy
New London - Just inside the entrance of Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz's office, a yellow sticky note on a mahogany-colored door says: "nationally prominent, locally relevant."
It's a daily reminder of the vision that guides all her actions as the superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy - from expanding facilities that will attract top-notch students, to forming partnerships that bring more scholars to the campus to study and train.
The academy competes for a relatively small group of accomplished students with an aptitude for science, technology, engineering and math. When it comes to the minority students the Coast Guard wants to add to its ranks, the pool gets even smaller.
A small and selective school, the academy received close to 2,000 applications for about 250 appointments for its Class of 2016. Its admissions decisions are based on merit, unlike other service academies that require a congressional nomination. The student body numbers around 1,000.
Students agree to serve in the Coast Guard after graduation and in return they get a four-year, tuition-free education. US News & World Report ranked the academy first for regional colleges in the north. The academy's website says, "many consider the Coast Guard Academy the 'best-kept secret' in undergraduate education."
But the leadership of the Coast Guard doesn't want the academy to be any kind of secret. They want the brightest high school students to think about the academy when choosing a college.
And Stosz may be the superintendent to make that happen.
She has received a lot of attention as the first female superintendent of a U.S. service academy. But when major news outlets and members of Congress call to talk about her, she tells them about the cadets instead, and the faculty and the school.
Today, on her one-year anniversary in the job, Stosz says striving for national prominence energizes the campus.
"I want to keep pushing my people to achieve the next level of excellence and feel the pride in that," she said. "National prominence gives us that good goal to keep focusing on. It's all about pride and enthusiasm and excellence."
Focus on fitness, conduct
The phrase "national prominence" is used so often on campus that students have shortened it to "natty prom."
Ensign J. Matthew Hurtt, who graduated in May, said they coined the phrase after Stosz said national prominence "an exorbitant amount of times" in her first speech to the corps.
"We kind of joked about it, but I do like what she's doing and I agree with her message," said Hurtt, of Old Lyme, who is headed to Florida to serve on the Cutter Thetis. "If people know who we are and what we're about, we'll get more talent in the future, and that betters the service. I think we're the best-kept secret in the military but we need to look outward."
When Stosz first mentioned her goal to the faculty and staff, they asked what she meant. The academy's firing range, located in a hot, stuffy basement, is a perfect example, Stosz said.
"I would understand if I was told our range program is average. Our conditions are bad," she said. "Instead I found national prominence in a basement."
An instructor had come up with clever, innovative techniques and as a result, nearly all cadets were qualifying to shoot a pistol.
"I challenge people. 'You show me national prominence,'" Stosz said. "Look in basements, corners, find where we can be nationally prominent. There is so much treasure here, and sometimes it's hidden."
Stosz also re-emphasized physical fitness and took a strong stance on conduct issues, Hurtt said.
"There was less tolerance for poor behavior, and I think that sent a message to the corps that we're an institution of prominence and we're valuable to the New London community," he said. "It was felt within the corps, for sure."
Stosz said the academy needs to continue to improve and to be one step ahead of the competition "for a choosy group of students that have a lot of options." Ivy League schools can offer generous financial aid packages and the other service academies are larger and well-known, she added.
While she was earning a master's degree in business administration, Stosz said, she learned that "if you're not growing and moving forward, you'll be pushed back eventually."
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said Stosz "excelled in her first year."
"She has leveraged this unique opportunity as the first female academy superintendent to raise the prominence of this institution, which ultimately benefits the cadets by opening doors and broadening their horizons," he said.
For Stosz, achieving such prominence depends on whether the academy can offer the facilities and courses that would make it competitive with the other academies, engineering schools and small colleges in the region.
Today's high school students, Stosz said, are "looking for more in their college experience."
Stosz still talks passionately about what could've been, if only the Coast Guard had purchased part of Riverside Park so the academy could expand. New London voters narrowly defeated the proposal in November.
She often jogs by the park. It's in shambles, she said, and most visitors are only there to smoke cigarettes.
"I think we could've taken half that park and made it look like what it looks like here," she said.
Stosz said she had "put that aside," but a question about the park "brings back the passion."
Her husband tells her to do a better job of hiding her emotions at work. But Stosz said she can't - what you see is what you get.
"Early on, I tried to sculpt myself to people's expectations of an officer. I tried to get into that box," she said. "I realized it was an uncomfortable box and it was not going to work for me."
The centerpiece of the expansion plans is a building to house a new shipboard simulator. The academy's simulator uses old technology and may not last much longer.
"We're going to have to expand," Stosz said. "It hasn't become a crisis yet but that simulator is probably the leading edge of it. I'm going to do everything I can, but the time is not right now. It's too close to the vote and the mayor is always tackling something new. I think it's going to be a while."
With those plans stalled, the academy is expanding where it can on campus and reviewing its curriculum. Stosz is trying to raise the public profile of the school through events and partnerships that introduce more people to the campus. A conference on climate change in the Arctic brought national and international scholars to the academy in April. Cadets will be assigned to tugboats for the first time as part of a new agreement between the academy and tug and barge operators.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering sending 20 to 40 officers annually to study at the Coast Guard Academy instead of at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. A pilot program with the academy's Leadership Development Center is planned for this summer.
Stosz rarely returns home before 9 or 10 p.m. because of all the engagements she attends on campus and in the community.
A tomboy growing up, Stosz is usually in athletic gear when she's not in uniform. She likes to do yoga or canoe and walk in parks with her husband, Bob Volpe, in what little free time she has. She loves the outdoors and said if she hadn't joined the service, she would have become a biologist, zoologist, paleontologist or "anything that ended in '-ologist.'"
Stosz, 52, a Maryland native, has been a registered voter in Connecticut since 1982, the year she graduated from the academy in the third class to include women. She said she has a vested personal interest in the community and she wants the academy and the city to enter the spotlight together.
"There's so much potential here and I'm pleased to be a part of all that hope and opportunity," she said. "We can't let the infighting and parochialism keep us back. I think it has for many years, not us as an academy but us as a community."
The previous superintendent told Stosz one year ago that the academy was on the cusp of national prominence and she needed to take it the rest of the way.
Early in his tenure, Retired Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe said the academy was being held back because it didn't have the budget, faculty and staff it needed to reach national prominence. But by the end, he said, "we were on the edge of something really special."
"I felt people were aligned in the same direction. The Coast Guard was investing in us, in terms of money and people, and I thought that really good things would come to the Coast Guard Academy as a result," Burhoe said Friday. He is now the president of Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.
"We had a responsibility to give the young men and women who are coming there the best school possible," he said. "They were giving so much of their lives to the school and the organization."
Stosz said she recognized it then as a "noble goal" and decided to "run with it." She said she knew it would be important to capitalize on the attention she was receiving and "turn it back on the Coast Guard" and on the future.
What Stosz liked most about the stories on CNN and National Public Radio about her becoming the first female superintendent is that they didn't really focus too much on her. She agreed to the interviews but arranged for the reporters to spend time with cadets. The NPR and CNN stories ultimately were about cadet life.
After Newsweek named Stosz one of the "150 Women Who Shake the World," U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., wanted to recognize her in April as a "Joe's Hero." She agreed but she told him not to talk about her in his remarks. She wanted him to make it all about the academy.
Stosz is naturally shy, a character trait she says the Coast Guard has helped her overcome. But that shyness, she said, keeps her humble. She drives a 1999 Ford Escort.
"When you get to be senior (in rank), you see people consumed by their own hubris," she said. "I think when people are depending on you to set the example, you have to have some grounding to hold on to."
Stosz is the leader the faculty and staff can rally around to take the legacy built by her predecessors "to the next level," said Capt. Glenn Sulmasy, chairman of the academy's Humanities Department.
"Her interest in doing this is not to make herself great. Her interest is in making the academy great and all of us great," Sulmasy said. "We see her humility, likeability, affability and love of the institution.
"Her commitment is evident in everything she does and it inspires the faculty and staff to support her."
John Mack, a first-class cadet from Vermont, said Stosz is "very open" and often asks the cadets whether they have any questions or concerns.
"She wants to know our perspective and opinion on things that she doesn't see because she's at a different level," he said.
Hurtt, the recent graduate, said Stosz always seemed approachable. "She's very jovial," he said. "She laughs a lot."
"I think she brought a lot to the academy, not only as the first female superintendent but as someone who wants to promote the academy," Hurtt added. "She'll do whatever it takes to do that and it's really not about her."
Stosz plans to retire after this assignment is finished. The opportunity to train hundreds of young officers, Stosz said, is a "gift." And doing a good job at that is really what she wants to be remembered for, above all else.
"What better legacy?" she asked.