NEW LONDON — The United States Coast Guard Academy graduated 243 students at its 142nd commencement Wednesday, preparing to send many to far-off cutters following their demanding but community-building 200-week educational journey.
Two Coast Guard helicopters flew overhead as the newly minted ensigns heard the words, "You may now divest yourselves of all symbols of cadet life" and consequently threw their cadet covers into the air.
The Class of 2023 ― which includes 11 people from Connecticut ― is 42% women and 34% underrepresented minorities, with three cadets from other countries: the Philippines, Costa Rica and Mauritius. They and a few students with medical issues were not among the 235 ensigns commissioned Wednesday.
"You are now leaders of people and of the Coast Guard," said U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the keynote speaker. "You are also the leader of your own life. What type of life do you want for yourself? What do you want out of life? What meaning do you want your life to have? Think about it. It will help you act with purpose."
Mayorkas shared three leadership lessons he said Nathan Bovankovich, who entered the academy with the Class of 2023, wrote before his death: be a servant, under-promise and over-deliver, and deeper meaning can be found in a world without putting people into boxes.
According to the academy, Bovankovich was selected president as a third-class cadet ― meaning in his second year ― but chose to leave the academy before incurring a service commitment and later died by suicide.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan told cadets, "You'll instantly find yourself at the center of critically important work to ensure our national security."
She said they will lead boarding teams on vessels smuggling tons of narcotics, break ice and maintain aids to navigation to keep waterways open, respond to oil spills and investigate environmental crimes.
Fagan said the four-year journey she finished 38 years ago "at the time felt like an eternity to me," but the years since "have been nothing but a pleasure and a privilege, and frankly have gone by in a blink."
This was Fagan's first commencement since becoming commandant, but it was the last as academy superintendent for Rear Adm. William Kelly, who is retiring and becoming president of Christopher Newport University.
"Remain all-in to do what is right, regardless of your personal sacrifice that it may entail," Kelly said, "and if you remain all-in for your people ― if you care for them, if you prepare them, and if you set incredibly high expectations for them, and if you challenge them to meet those expectations ― then your unit, our Coast Guard, and the nation we love will be better for it."
This year's distinguished graduate is Christine Groves, a Texas native who is a Truman Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar. She is headed to Reykjavik University in Iceland for graduate school.
In her speech, Groves cited lessons learned from Frodo and Bilbo in the "Lord of the Rings" universe, applying them to the Coast Guard.
She also talked about inclusivity and creating a culture of acceptance, citing the work of some classmates: Taylor Young for serving as a founding member of an advisory board on women, Turner Linafelter and Hector Rivera for developing policy recommendations to be presented at the White House, and the class overall for initiating the first International Transgender Day of Visibility celebration.
"We are going from the top of the cadet chain of command to the bottom of the officer corps, but we must still make our voices heard," Groves said.
She also gave a shout-out to the graduate at the top of the class academically, Teegan Cordova.
Before presenting commissions and degrees, Provost Amy Donahue encouraged cadets not to seek success or happiness, but to instead "determine what is meaningful to you and devote your energy to those things. If you do, you'll find that success and happiness occur naturally."
For some cadets, a short journey to the academy
Allen Kruger of Noank works at the academy as waterfront director, but he was there Wednesday to celebrate the graduation of a child, for the second time. Management major Gaige Kruger is headed to the cutter James in Charleston, S.C., while 2017 grad Niki Kruger is currently serving in Alaska. The family is also celebrating the graduation of Gaige's twin brother from the University of Utah.
Speaking after the regimental review Tuesday, government major Mia Cost said growing up in Deep River and attending the Marine Science Magnet High School in Groton, she drove past the academy every day. She started seeing people she knew attend the academy and thought she could do it, too.
"Knowing these guys since Day One, to see who we are now is just such incredible growth," Cost said.
She said she doesn't come from a military background but was drawn to the Coast Guard's humanitarian mission, which she said "is unmatched anywhere else."
After graduation, she is headed to the 270-foot cutter Mohawk. The boat is homeported in Key West, Fla., which is where Aidan Arsenault of East Lyme is going to serve on the fast response cutter William Trump.
Arsenault moved to the area when his father, retired Coast Guard Capt. Alan Arsenault, became commanding officer of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in New London in 2011.
In the summer of 2020, when many other cadets were on the training ship Eagle or at a station, Arsenault had the opportunity to go to a California-based cutter that sailed to Alaska, the Russian border and Hawaii.
It was there he met his fiancee, first-class cadet Kevilyn Frazier, who is co-locating with Arsenault in Key West.
Fitch High School graduate Andrew Kerst, who studied naval architecture and marine engineering, is headed to Seattle to serve on the cutter Healy, an icebreaker. Kerst said in high school, he couldn't see himself at a regular college, and his brother paved the way: Matt Kerst graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 2021.
That year, the commencement speaker was President Joe Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris gave the keynote address last year. The president and vice president each rotate between giving the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, Air Force Academy, Naval Academy and West Point.
Editor's Note: This story corrects the number of commissioned ensigns.
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