Largest group of African-Americans graduate from Coast Guard Academy

Adm. Paul Zukunft, right, commandant of the Coast Guard, addresses the 18 African-American, newly minted Coast Guard ensigns in the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2018. The men and women represent the largest group of African-Americans to graduate from the academy. After graduation was over, the cadets' mentors gave them lieutenant commander shoulder boards, a rank usually achieved after 10 years of service, to encourage them to become leaders in the Coast Guard.  (Julia Bergman/The Day)
Adm. Paul Zukunft, right, commandant of the Coast Guard, addresses the 18 African-American, newly minted Coast Guard ensigns in the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2018. The men and women represent the largest group of African-Americans to graduate from the academy. After graduation was over, the cadets' mentors gave them lieutenant commander shoulder boards, a rank usually achieved after 10 years of service, to encourage them to become leaders in the Coast Guard. (Julia Bergman/The Day)

New London — After the graduation ceremony ended and the crowd began dispersing, a group of newly minted Coast Guard ensigns and their families, friends and mentors gathered around the Honor Wall, which is inscribed with the words "Who lives here reveres honor, honors duty."

The 18 men and women represent the largest number of African-Americans to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy — the result of hard work, which several mentioned has just begun, to diversify the institution that develops the Coast Guard's future officers.

The ensigns were given lieutenant commander shoulder boards, a rank usually achieved after 10 years of Coast Guard service, as a memento to encourage them to stay in the Coast Guard and become leaders in the service.

"The goal is to have you break into the senior leadership of this organization. For you guys to do that, you guys have got to remain vigilant. You got to remain focused, and you got to remain on task," said Cmdr. Marcus Canady, a 2000 academy graduate who is part of the Admissions Minority Outreach Team, which has helped to recruit minorities to come to the academy and mentor them during their time here.

The shoulder boards are a way to "keep that idea in your head" over the next 10 years, Canady told the ensigns.

Merle Smith, the first African-American to graduate from the academy, presented Ensign Tyler Exum of Fort Washington, Md., who majored in electrical engineering and graduated with honors, with his shoulder boards.

"It's taken this long for our Coast Guard Academy to reflect the nation whom we serve," Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, said to the ensigns. "It was really about giving people the opportunity, going out and exposing them to the Coast Guard Academy."

In addition to Zukunft, Rear Adm. James Rendon, superintendent at the academy, also was present at the shoulder board ceremony.

The outreach team played a big part in exposing prospective students to the academy. Canady said the group was formed about 2007 and then went dormant for a little while before picking back up again about five years ago, as prospective students in the Class of 2018 were looking at colleges. He and retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Mark Harris, a 1996 graduate of the academy, challenged the ensigns to continue that work.

Ensign Joy Watkins, 24, of Newport News, Va., said achieving the rank of lieutenant commander is "definitely a future goal." Watkins, whose first assignment is as a student engineer on the cutter Douglas Munro based in Kodiak, Alaska, was particularly proud that all five African-American women who came to the academy as part of the Class of 2018 graduated on Wednesday.

"We started as five and we ended as five," she said.

Ensign Geremy Kendrick, 22, of Gainesville, Fla., who is headed to Huron, Mich., to serve as a deck watch officer on the cutter Hollyhock, said the academy prepared him well and that he expected it to be a "smooth transition" to his first assignment. He credited his mentor, Lt. Cmdr. Jonathan Harris, with being a part of his success and convincing him to come to the academy.

"He told me if I came here that I'd have more opportunities than at any other point in my life," Kendrick said.

j.bergman@theday.com

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