The Coast Guard Academy’s current class looks a lot different than traditional ones

The Coast Guard Academy has reached a record for its incoming class, with 43% of the new swabs being women.

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The Coast Guard Academy has reached a record for its incoming class, with 43% of the new swabs being women. To talk about this and other goings-on at the academy, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Superintendent, Rear Adm. Bill Kelly.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Adm. Kelly, good to have you on.

Bill Kelly: It’s a pleasure to be with you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the institution that we love.

Tom Temin: And before we get into the new swabs, what a great I guess that’s better than knobs, but the other people that float, but just give us a quick review of the Coast Guard Academy mission. A little bit of the history there.

Bill Kelly: Sure. Appreciate that the the Coast Guard Academy has been a part of this nation’s military since 1876. The Coast Guard dates back to 1790. But the Coast Guard Academy was first set up in 1876, here in New London, Connecticut, and then moved around until its current location in 1932. And we’ve been training cadets to serve in the world’s best Coast Guard ever since. The Coast Guard Academy has currently just over 1,000 students, they study in nine different majors, all of them will receive a Bachelors of Science degree, the goal is to ensure that each and every member of the Coast Guard Academy, they walked across the stage on the third Wednesday of May, graduates from the institution with a solid liking for the sea and the floor. And what that means is an understanding of what it means to go and serve afloat, serve in the most challenging environments that we see. And then also understand how to progress forward in your career as a well rounded officer, whether that’s back afloat or whatever career you choose to pursue, in the Coast Guard, you’re going to be well grounded in that because of the education and the co-curricular activities that you receive. Here we have 23 NCAA Division III sports that we’re very competitive in. And then we have a sailing program that is nationally recognized. So if you’re a cadet here at the Coast Guard Academy, you’re gonna have a busy day, you’re gonna be learning a lot, you’re gonna be doing a lot. And hopefully at the end of the day, you’re going to be enjoying it a lot.

Tom Temin: And is the Coast Guard Academy equally selective the way the other service academies are where you need a recommendation and from Congress, they’re pretty tough to get into.

Bill Kelly: Yeah, Tom, that’s a that’s a great question. And is equally tough to get into the Coast Guard Academy. But we don’t have the congressional appointment process the other service academies have. And we actually think that that provides us or we know from the from the data that provides us an opportunity to recruit a more diverse cohort of students. And we’re actually the National Academy of Public Administration is doing an analysis of our admissions program. Even as we speak, it was congressionally mandated, and they’ve come in, and they’re taking a look at us. So we’re gonna learn a lot from that. But one of the things that seems apparent from their initial look is that the appointment process may not be best suited for an institution of our size, just over 1,000 students. So if you think about that, that’s on par with one class at the Naval Academy, or West Point where they have roughly 4,000 students there, and also out of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Tom Temin: Sure, interestingly, NAPA just finished a study of the Maritime Academy and that was a little bit more comprehensive look there. So read that one before they stop by and start looking what’s going on at your place.

Bill Kelly: They just finished one for us on cultural competence here at the Coast Guard Academy. And I was very heartened by the report that basically said the cultural competence is within reach at the Coast Guard Academy, and highlighted some of the things that we’re doing as a leader in that area of inclusion and equity for our student body and also for our entire community here. So I think we’re, we’re preparing officers to go out and serve in a Coast Guard that’s going to look very different tomorrow than it does today.

Tom Temin: And that gets to our question of how you were able to attract a class that is nearly half women, which is a landmark kind of, I should say, a sea mark or a buoy mark level for the Coast Guard Academy. How did you do that?

Bill Kelly: Yeah, Tom, I think it’s been I don’t think it was a one year event. This is something that’s been growing here, the Coast Guard Academy, you know, what we find out about the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Academy, is when folks find out about it, they want a little bit more. So whether that’s DoD calling the Coast Guard to serve in the South China Sea, or Persian Gulf, or wherever it might be, they get a little postcard they want a little bit more, because they realize just how good and talented our people are. And so I think the word is out that the Coast Guard Academy is a place that you can come to as a young woman or young man, you’re going to get a great education, you’re going to do it in a safe and inclusive environment, you’re going to be challenged, you’re going to be pushed, and at the end, you’re gonna have an opportunity to serve your nation an officer in the United States Coast Guard, which is, which is pretty cool. Right? It’s not a hard job to get up and do every day as a superintendent here when you get to work with these great young women and men.

But you know, I think admissions and the college environment right now is incredibly challenging. It’s an incredibly demanding market. We’re seeing the finest institutions in the land, continuing to have an uptick in the number of applicants, and we’re seeing those institutions that may be struggling or not as maybe not have the same brand recognition are not seeing the same number of applicants. So we have to constantly be on our game and ensure that our institution, our facilities, and our programs are the finest in the nation and we’re the number one rated school by U.S. News and World Report in the north. We’re very proud of that. And we have other accolades by others, you know other institutions that ranked colleges, but we’re constantly focused on ensuring that we maintain that competitive edge. And I think the young women and men who come here, whether it’s through our summer programs, we’re currently running the AIM program right now, which is for rising, high school seniors that come to the academy for a week to learn what we’re about. All of those types of opportunities and opening up our campus provides a window into what we do here in the Coast Guard, here at the Coast Guard Academy, but also what we do across the nation and around the globe as members of the Coast Guard.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Coast Guard Academy superintendent, Rear Admiral Bill Kelly, and that cultural awareness, cultural competence then extends to how those women and I guess all the swabs, all the cadets are treated when they are actually enrolled. And when they get started with their academic careers, how do you make sure that they have the same rigor that you would want from the days when it was all male, but yet be fair and culturally competent? Given that it’s the way we are in the 21st century?

Bill Kelly: Yeah, Tom, I think I think it’s evolved, right? It’s evolved since I went through in 1983, and graduated 1987. It’s evolved since my son showed up here in 2010, and graduated 2014. And it evolves over the four years that I’ve been here. We learned a lot during COVID. In the United States military learned a lot about how to onboard, whether it’s the new recruits coming through boot camps, or the cadets coming through each of our five military service academies, I had the privilege of being the CO of training center, Cape May, where all of our enlisted members come through from 2010 to 2013. So I think I have a strong grounding in how to assess young women and men into the service. And what we’ve tried to do here is we’ve tried to have more of an acclamation period right up front. COVID taught us because we were not able to do some of the things that we’ve done in the past, that if you allow young women, young young folks to get acclimated to their surroundings, get to know the people that they’re working with day in and day out, then when you start to turn the heat up, and start to ramp up the challenges that they’re going to face, both physically, academically, and then you know, even from a mental health perspective, right, all of those things, when you start to know the folks around you, and you have a relationship with them, and you have trust built up with them, then you’re much more resilient. And we found that as has helped our retention numbers significantly by moving to that type of model. So we’re gonna continue to refine it each year is a challenge, and each year brings a it’s different opportunities. But we’re gonna continue to build upon that, I think what we’ve done is ensured that it’s an incredibly challenging program. But we’ve sequenced the steps appropriately in the program, to ensure that it’s also incredibly fair program.

Tom Temin: It strikes me that when your son was in and you were also in the Coast Guard, you might be the only parent in the nation who can be a true helicopter parent.

Bill Kelly: Well, I am a seagoing officer. So to any of my colleagues out there who, who may be listening, you know, who were who were a cutter men or slow in the Navy. They know that that’s where the you know, the real chops are earned. We love our pilot brethren as well. And my daughter in law is in the Air Force and she flies there for them. So you know, I have loyalties on both sides of the aisle.

Tom Temin: All right, but you like propellers that you can’t see. And just getting back to the the whole idea of recruitment and diversity. What else do you have planned ahead for I guess on the feedstock side, the recruitment side to ensure ever increasing diversity of who does come into the academy

Bill Kelly: Yeah, and Tom, you know, opportunities like this, right, opportunities to share our story with a broad audience about the opportunities that exist here at the Coast Guard Academy are greatly appreciate. Our commandant has come into office Adm. Fagan, the first female commander of any of the components in our United States military, and she’s made it very clear we need to do a better job of marketing the United States Coast Guard and all the good things that we do. We are focused squarely on talent management, and recruiting the best and brightest into our service both on the enlisted and officer and civilian side of the house. So I am confident that those efforts will help us get the word out. We need to continue to apply the appropriate resources, right, and college admissions and recruiting across any organization, money is the root of all excellence in many of these areas. We have a great story to tell.

Tom Temin: And with the Naval Academy being close to Washington every year there’s dutiful coverage in the local media of the greased monument. I don’t know whether they’re putting a hat up there or taking one off, is there anything equivalent at the Coast Guard Academy?

Bill Kelly: There is and I love seeing the Instagram posts from down in Annapolis and a good friend of mine, Adm. Sean Buck, who’s a superintendent down there. We both came in at the same time. We both been through COVID and all the ups and downs. But there is very much we have what’s called sea trials, which will be the last day of Swab Summer for the for the swabs. I hope no swabs are listening to this so the word gets out. But sea trials is an event that starts very early in the morning and their final day and takes them through a series of series of rigorous opportunities both educationally and physically to demonstrate their teamwork to demonstrate their readiness to move from being a swab to being a fourth class cadet and then we will gather on our parade field, the Washington Parade Field out here and we will do the final pushup. That’s what we do collectively as a community. And that’ll be on their last day. They just this past weekend, kind of to mark the midway point, they did what’s called the long blue climb, which again is starts early in the morning. And then we’ll finish. We have a big, we were talking about buoys earlier we were joking about that. We have a big buoy that’s at the corner of our 103 acres here and they will they’ll run up the hill together collectively as a company, and they’ll ring that bell, you know, they’ll ring the gong on the buoy there. So that’s part of the long blue climb, kind of symbolizing the halfway mark. And then we’ll culminate it with the with sea trials. On the final day of swab summer.

Tom Temin: Sounds fantastic. Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, a superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bill Kelly: Thank you, Tom. I appreciate the opportunity to tell our great story.


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