Just days before officially embarking on what may be some of the most difficult and grueling weeks of their lives as part of the Coast Guard Academy's notorious Swab Summer, "international, first-generation and minority" students of the incoming Class of 2023 eagerly took part in a specialized three-day respect and inclusion orientation program.
Formally known as the Respect and Inclusion Summer Experience program, or RISE, incoming cadets, as well as their parents, were invited to the academy this week before the start of their eight-week summer training -- known as Swab Summer -- for a three-day orientation aimed at helping prepare them for the transition from civilian to a military lifestyle.
"They're learning things like, what does it mean to square? Squaring your meals, squaring your corners. Getting your uniform on. How much time do you have to shower?" said the academy's Chief Diversity Officer Aram deKoven, who oversees the RISE program. "This program helps answer some of those questions and alleviates the stress."
Founded five summers ago through the Academy's Office of Diversity and Inclusion as an effort to better prepare "folks who have been historically marginalized, historically excluded to access, to success here," deKoven said RISE also is offered to all incoming cadets, no matter their background.
This year, RISE attracted its largest participant group thus far -- 38 cadets, as well as another five international cadets, among this year's incoming class of 234. About 40% of this year's class is female -- the highest female makeup of any incoming class, even among the country's other military academies -- while minorities make up approximately 35% of the class, a number on par with last year, deKoven said.
During Friday's sessions, Coast Guard officers and academy faculty gave presentations detailing everything from the academy's rigorous academics to support services available on campus, as well as what to expect throughout the summer training, which starts Monday.
For participating parents, deKoven said RISE helps detail military nomenclature, as well as the upcoming realities their children will face over the immediate months and years. Parents have limited ability to speak with their children throughout summer training, he said, and cadets do not have access to social media during that time.
Cadets' parents must understand that their children are "going to be taking the oath to serve and honor the Constitution. That they will be voluntarily giving up certain rights. They'll be wearing the cloth of the nation. It's a big deal," deKoven said. "We want them to feel as comfortable and at ease as possible before their children begin."
For Jenny Johnston, mother of incoming Cadet Maggie Johnston, 18, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the RISE program has not only been a "phenomenal" introduction into Coast Guard military life, but has provided reassurance that her daughter has made a sound life decision and will be serving her country with dignity.
Johnston explained that before she and Maggie came to RISE, she worried that Maggie would be encouraged to treat illegal immigrants in inhumane ways once becoming a border patrol officer four years from now.
"Even with her two brothers having gone to military academies and her mother gone through basic training, having your girl go into the military is difficult," Johnston said, detailing her own seven-year service in the Army. "I've worried that she will be in an environment not designed for her."
After having attended RISE, however, those worries and fears have been eased, Johnston said.
"This morning Aram (deKoven) was the first person to speak, and he has really put forward this idea of acceptance and diversity. That is what this is about. And that the Coast Guard is serious about it. It feels serious," Johnston said.
Expanding on that idea, deKoven said, "We need women. We need people of color. We need all of this because the nation is changing. The face of the Coast Guard is changing. The face of the enlisted force is changing. And these people will lead the enlisted force."
"It used to be this idea of, 'Look to your right, look to your left. By the end of this, one of those people won't be here,'" deKoven said. "Now, it's, 'You earned these spots. Work hard and we are going to do whatever we can do to help you. We want you. We picked you for a reason.'"
"The challenge is to make sure that they feel that and that they know that. That's what we hope to do through RISE," he said.
Though deKoven couldn't immediately provide exact retention rate numbers for past RISE participants, deKoven said that all RISE participants have completed summer training, except for a select few who were forced to drop out due to unforeseen medical issues.
Incoming cadet Natalie Wong, 17, of Honolulu, Hawaii, said that she decided to take part in the RISE program as a way to better get to know the campus and people -- "to ease in" -- before starting summer training.
"I've been super nervous," Wong, who is Chinese American, said. "But this program has shown me that the Coast Guard has support groups at every corner. That there is a lot of support for us here."
Lea Walker, 18, of Macon, Georgia, agreed with that idea, saying, "They are showing us that there are many support groups here at the school," and that she's been able to meet many of the people as part of her soon-to-be platoon.
"I came because I thought this would help make for a smoother transition," said Walker, who is African American. "I was worried about Swab Summer. Now I'm halfway scared, but halfway excited. I feel ready."
This article is written by Mary Biekert from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.