NEW LONDON -- Eight months into holding the top post at the Coast Guard Academy, Rear Adm. James Rendon is working to increase the size of the corps of cadets from 886 to 1,000, after recently receiving a memo from Coast Guard Headquarters to do so.
While the corps likely won't reach 1,000 before Rendon completes his time as superintendent, he says he'll be able to get a good start on the effort.
"We're on the rise and I'm excited about that," Rendon said during a recent interview in his office.
He anticipates the Class of 2020 having at least 295 cadets, maybe even 300. The Class of 2019 has 287 cadets compared to the Class of 2016, which has just 194, according to figures provided by the academy. These totals do not include the international cadets in those classes.
Diversity continues to be of great interest to the Coast Guard, Rendon said, and will presumably be a focus for academy officials as they work toward the 1,000-cadet threshold.
"We, as a service, realize the value of being more diverse, and the richness it brings to our service," Rendon said. "We feel good about where we're at. But this is not one of these things that you can claim success and then go back to the way it was, so to speak."
The Class of 2015 was the most diverse graduating class in academy history, according to Rendon.
"Although it's fairly early in the game right now, what I see in terms of 2020, I like what I see," he said. "From a diversity standpoint, I think we're on par, if not a little bit better right now."
The academy is seeing an increase in minority applicants, Rendon said, and a number of active duty officers at the academy, some of whom are minorities and some of whom are not, are interested in helping to identify underrepresented minorities, or URMs, as potential applicants.
"We have consistently done well with Hispanics when you take a look at the last few years," he said. "We'd like to do better with the African-American population."
Out of the entire corps of cadets, 46 identified themselves as African-American and 100 identified themselves as Hispanic, according to academy figures as of June 29, 2015.
In January, Rendon traveled to San Diego to visit Gompers Preparatory Academy, a 1,100-student charter school. All of the students are underrepresented minorities and 100 percent of last year's graduating class went on to college, according to Rendon.
"They're doing something right there and we want to be a part of that," he said, adding that the academy would "continue to nurture our relationship with that school."
Rendon is back at the academy after three years, and "I like what I see," he said.
He served as assistant superintendent from 2010 to 2012. While in that role, he helped to develop a strategic plan for the academy, which was implemented under former superintendent Sandra Stosz, now a vice admiral. Rendon is committed to continuing that plan. "First and foremost is this idea of leadership development," he said.
His commitment to leadership development is perhaps best represented by a framed picture of cadets from the Class of 2019 -- taken minutes after they received fourth class shoulder boards -- that hangs above his desk. Rendon removes the picture from the wall and takes it with him anytime he has a speaking engagements. He took itto a recent talk at the Rotary Club.
He remembers how nervous the cadets were on the first day of Swab Summer, the doubt on their face.
"It says so many things. The joy in their face. The sense of accomplishment, camaraderie. There's diversity in there. ... It's just a wonderful picture that captures it all in terms of their summer experience," Rendon said.
Much of what goes on at the academy is about helping the larger Coast Guard such as the Center for Arctic Study and Policy and the cadet Cyber Team.
Rendon is interested in creating a Sailing and Maritime Center of Excellence that would replace Pine Hall, a prefab building, down at waterfront, where the academy has made a number of improvements in recent years. Rendon is in talks with the Alumni Association to help put together a design concept for the center.
"I'm pretty optimistic that we're going to move toward making that a reality," he said.
He'd also like to renovate the other half of Chase Hall, where the corps lives, but acknowledged "that's a challenge in the fiscal environment that we're in right now."
Over the past couple of years, the academy has had a cumulative budget shortfall of $1 million. As a result, academy officials have had to accomplish their mission with less money and have looked for opportunities to be more efficient, Rendon said.
"We're faring OK," he said. The "lean times" at the academy are reflective of "the nation's fiscal challenges and certainly the larger Coast Guard."