Pit Stop #55: United States Coast Guard Academy

Let’s start this post with a news quiz!

Which New England college boasts:

  • * an almost 90% four-year graduation rate; 
  • * a ranking as Top Regional College in the Northeast for the last nine years; 
  • *  24 intercollegiate Division III athletic teams; 
  • * and a tradition at commencement of every graduate giving away two silver dollars (I’ll explain that one later). 

Bonus Hint: Alexander Hamilton was the founder of this military force!

Well, you’ve seen the headline so I’m sure you correctly guessed the United States Coast Guard Academy, where my latest NECHE on the Road trip took me. Sadly, it was a very rainy day for our visit to campus, but that did not dampen our enthusiasm in the least; its setting on the banks of the Thames River in New London, Connecticut could not be more picturesque. And proudly, NECHE has accredited the Academy since 1952. 

First, a bit about the Coast Guard itself, about which I admit I knew very little. The USCG has a number of distinct missions including Maritime Transportation; Protection from the Sea; Protecting the Sea; and Maritime Law Enforcement and Security. These endeavors cover everything from regulating commercial vessels in maritime commerce to rescuing sailors in peril, protecting the ocean ecosystem, and interrupting drug cartels and tax dodgers on the high seas. Of all the branches of the military, the Coast Guard is the one most associated with humanitarian and security service, which attracts many applicants to the Academy. 

The USCGA is one of America’s four renowned military academies, joining the Army’s West Point, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. All cadets at USCGA attend college for free and, in return, commit upon graduation to five years of service in the Coast Guard. Interestingly, all branches of the military report to the Department of Defense except for the Coast Guard Academy, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security (although in times of war, it can be transferred to the Department of Navy). 

This year’s USCGA freshmen class includes nearly 300 cadets, and a significant percentage are women. The entire student body of about 1,100 cadets lives in one dorm called Chase Hall, making it the largest barracks in the Coast Guard.

Of course, all students (or cadets as they are called) are in uniform when outside their living quarters. The Academy’s non-civilian faculty (about half the total faculty) is also in uniform, which gives the campus an air of formality and discipline that distinguishes it from other campuses I visit. Yet in the end, as my host Provost Amy Donahue explained, the Academy is at its core a four-year undergraduate college of 18- to 22-year-olds with quite a traditional permanent faculty, all of whom have doctoral degrees. 

The Academy is highly regarded for the strength of its academic programs, and its nine majors in electrical, mechanical, and civil and environmental engineering; cyber systems; management; government; marine and environmental science; naval architecture and marine engineering; and operation research and data analytics.

But what was truly mind-blowing for me was USCGA’s astonishingly sophisticated ship simulator which I can’t imagine on any other campus. It was so real that my tendency to experience seasickness on any boat, in any weather, rose to the fore as I “steamed” up the Hudson River toward the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the simulator can replicate navigating every harbor in the world, as well as duplicate the bridge control center of every ship in the Coast Guard. What a phenomenal resource for the cadets to experience before they go out to sea! 

And the two silver dollars? The Academy, as one might expect, has a number of traditions and this one is etched in stone. Each graduating Ensign carries two silver dollars to share, with one given to the Anchor Cadet (the lowest-ranking graduating cadet) and the other to the first person to render a salute.

And so, another fine example of the incredibly diverse institutions NECHE accredits that I’ve had the good fortune to visit in the last three years. It may not have been the sunniest weather for my visit, but as the esteemed Provost Donahue quipped , it was pretty much a perfect Coast Guard day. Guess I got lucky!