One of the largest Coast Guard air stations in the nation is working with historically black Elizabeth City State University to step up the number of minorities joining the service.
Coast Guard plans include sending local service members to more ECSU functions such as graduations, conference calling the school monthly and remaining in close touch with the military affairs officer at the school. The Elizabeth City base lies about a mile from campus.
The university will step up its promotion of the Coast Guard, faculty research and "student opportunities" related to the mission, among other things. School officials did not elaborate on specifics. ECSU already offers a four-year degree in aviation.
The Coast Guard has been criticized for Department of Defense and Coast Guard statistics showing that blacks make up 5.4 percent of Coast Guard active duty, but 17.2 percent of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force combined. For all minorities, the Coast Guard has 14.8 percent compared to 31.2 percent for the other military services together.
One reason might be that the Department of Defense spends much more on marketing than does the Coast Guard, said Lt. Patrick Bennett, manager of the Coast Guard's College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative scholarships program.
"Army Strong" and "The Few, the Proud, The Marines" are well known slogans from television ads. The Coast Guard spends more resources in "grassroots" recruiting, he said.
"For years, people have said the Coast Guard is the best kept secret," Bennett said.
Bennett, who is black, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy after his parents encouraged him to apply. He received a scholarship for good high school grades and football, he said. The Coast Guard helped him escape an inner-city neighborhood near Washington, D.C. He recruits by telling his own story, he said.
"The Coast Guard saved my life," he said.
Marketing is a factor and so is reinforcement, said Commander Warren Judge, executive officer at the Elizabeth City Coast Guard base is an ECSU graduate.
"It is tough to join an organization where you don't see a lot of people who look like you in it," he said.
Judge, who is also black, dropped out of college and followed his brother into the Coast Guard. While in the service he continued his education including earning two master's degrees, he said.
"There are two things dear to my heart, the Coast Guard and ECSU," he said.
Eleven Coast Guard scholarship students have graduated from ECSU, including Judge and Lt. j.g. Philip Dodson, a helicopter pilot at the air station, according to a Coast Guard release. Author Alex Haley, best known for writing "Roots," attended ECSU and later joined the Coast Guard. He retired from the service in 1959.
Two students are in the program this year, Bennett said.
Six graduated last year. The scholarship has been offered nationally since the late 1980s.
The program pays the final two years of school, books, housing and a monthly salary. As part of the contract, the recruit goes through boot camp and participates in military activities. Later the recruit attends officer candidate school and serves a three-year active duty tour. About 40 historically black schools and other minority colleges participate, including Hampton University and Norfolk State University, he said.
Diversity fosters a new perspective and "fresh ideas," said Lt. Cmdr. Julie Rodriguez, with the Coast Guard Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
"We have a stronger, better Coast Guard to respond to complex situations," she said.
A recruitment goal was not readily available, she said.
Rear Admiral Meredith Austin, commander of the Coast Guard 5th District, and university Chancellor Thomas Conway signed the "memorandum of agreement" on Tuesday.
"Our goal in partnering with educational institutions, like ECSU, is to ensure that the Coast Guard can continue to recruit and retain a diverse, highly skilled workforce," Austin said.