In 2008, Lt. DeCarol A. Davis made history when she became the first African-American valedictorian at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. It's quite possible, though not confirmed, that Lt. Davis is the only African-American valedictorian from any of the military academies -- a unique distinction worth celebrating.
In this interview, Lt. Davis (a Marine Safety Officer), gives an in-depth look at life inside of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and offers candid advice on succeeding despite the challenges as well as helpful advice for parents and their children.
A. I joined the Coast Guard Academy because of basketball, tuition, and most importantly, public service. I learned about the Academy from my high school basketball coach. She believed the Academy was a "good fit" for me; it was a Division III school that would guarantee a starting position with ample playing time.
She also informed me that the school was tuition-free and guaranteed a job after graduation, which was a crucial factor for my family. That all being said, my primary reason for attending the Coast Guard Academy was my commitment to public service. For me, community service was a privilege and an obligation, and the Coast Guard Academy was my opportunity to serve.
Q2. The Coast Guard Academy is highly-selective. Please describe the admissions process and what kind of academic background is required in order to attend?
A. Although I'm not an Admissions Officer, I think the key factors for Academy admission consideration are the following: (1) academic performance through high school; (2) standardized testing; (3) extracurricular activity participation; (4) physical fitness; and (5) leadership/diversity as demonstrated in your personal statement(s).
Students who desire to study at the Coast Guard Academy should have a strong academic background. I recommend having completed Pre-Calculus or Calculus as there is a robust math curriculum for all students. If prospective students do not have a strong academic background, I recommend reconciling that element of the application with an explanation of why you believe your academic performance doesn't reflect your ability to succeed in college (i.e. working through high school, resource limitations, your active participation in the local community, etc.)
Q3. Was your family supportive? Please explain.
A. Absolutely. None of my success as a Coast Guard officer would have been possible without the support and unconditional love of my family. I came from a strong, hardworking family of the South, and for our family, success meant that you went to college and gave back to the community you came from. The work ethic I learned from my family translated into every part of my life, and my family's strength and support fueled my determination to excel in school and community service.
Q4. Can you briefly describe your four years there? What can students expect year-by-year?
A. During freshman year, we focused primarily on indoctrination into military customs and courtesies as well as performing well academically in core classes. It is during freshman year that you are called a "swab" and you take orders from upper-class cadets. You are expected to memorize history, data, current events, etc. and disseminate that information "on command." You do lots of cleaning and taking out trash. These seemingly menial tasks are all done as a team and you learn to cooperate "as a team" to accomplish goals.
Sophomore year was academically focused for me. I began to take more major area courses and participate in Electrical Engineering design projects. Junior year was also academically focused; however, I transitioned into roles of cadet leadership. As a junior, you are expected to develop plans and issue orders to under-class cadets. During senior year, you focus on transitioning into the officer corps and completing all necessary assignments for graduation.
Overall, the Academy is tough. There are many sleepless nights and long days. You don't just "go to school." You complete military training and physical fitness requirements. You stand night watch. There are limited opportunities to go home and leave the Academy grounds.
A. The lack of diversity was present and challenging; however, I was not deterred. I found support in friends, professors, members of the Civil Rights staff, basketball teammates, and partnerships in the local community. I made friends and focused my energy into those positive relationships. I relied heavily on the support of the basketball team. If at all possible, I recommend that future cadets consider getting involved in an Academy sports program.
Q6. Did you have any special struggles being a woman at the Academy? Why/Why not?
A. As a nation, we continue to see issues of race, class and gender across all fields. Aware of these challenges, I chose to study Electrical Engineering at the Coast Guard Academy to serve as a symbol of progress and hope for young women of color seeking to enter STEM fields and positions of leadership in the military.
My experience as an African-American woman breaking into the field of Electrical Engineering has shown me what an impact my presence in the classroom can have. In the lab, I helped to ensure that access and resource limitations were addressed during the consideration of design and materials for proposed energy and environment solutions. As for improving the cultural climate outside of the lab, I led several initiatives at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to bolster awareness.
To address issues of race and gender at the Academy, I published the article "To Profile Leadership" in the Alumni Bulletin, critiquing our leadership education framework and calling for more diversity in Coast Guard's higher ranks. To raise and facilitate the discourse on race at the Academy, I also organized a group of cadet actors and directed a production of Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter -- a play dramatizing unconscious, micro-aggressive racism in a university. Whether through engineering or human relations projects, I took every opportunity I could to improve the Academy's diversity.
Yes, there are challenges, but future students have the power to affect positive change.
Q7. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy has struggled to raise its profile amongst African-American families. What should parents know about opportunities here and how to best prepare their children who might want to attend?
A. I would like parents to know that the U.S. Coast Guard Academy is a tuition-free, four year college that guarantees a job after graduation and the opportunity to secure five years of work experience as a young person during your military "payback." Seeing 4-5 years into the future is extremely difficult for students trying to make it through high school, and I encourage parents to help their children see the long-term benefits of having a debt-free education. I hope that parents will sit down with their children and have direct conversations about money and the cost of college. This means sitting down with a calculator and exploring all options.
A. My sister, Adriane B. Randolph, was the first "doctor" in our family and has always been my hero and role model. She is my only sibling, and I love her very much. Although she wasn't "at the Academy," she was with me in heart and spirit every step of the way.
She received a Ph.D. in Business Administration from the Department of Computer Information Systems at Georgia State University and a B.S. in Systems Engineering with Distinction from the University of Virginia. Now, Adriane is the director of the BrainLab and an Assistant Professor of Information Systems in the Michael J. Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University.
What really inspires me about Adriane is not her academic accomplishment as much as her selfless dedication to improving the standard of living for people with disabilities. Currently, my sister's research focuses on brain-computer interface systems which allow for non-muscularly controlled assistive technologies and reflect systems that "locked-in" individuals can use to communicate with others. For those who may not be familiar with the term, "locked-in" means that a patient is cognitively aware but unable to move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all muscles in the body. My sister has an unparalleled compassion for people, and she works tirelessly to help in every way that she can; I've always wanted to be like her.
I have, and always will, look to my family for inspiration, and I am blessed to have that option.
Q9. You studied electrical engineering. Please describe the field and what you are doing now?
A. Electrical Engineering was a demanding major that required a strong math background. I spent my first three years developing logic and programming skills, and during my senior year, I applied those skills in the completion of a year-long senior project.
I am now working as a Marine Safety Officer. During my first tour, I worked as a Marine Inspector in New York City. I conducted extensive safety and security exams on U.S. and foreign-flagged vessels (e.g. ferries, tankers, barges and freight ships) pursuant to international conventions and U.S. laws. I also provided technical expertise in marine safety, salvage and engineering as an on-call 24/7 emergency responder to marine casualties and transportation emergencies.
After a rigorous tour in New York, I transferred to San Francisco to serve as the Waterways Safety Branch Chief. In San Francisco, I am a command advisor on waterways safety issues for commercial ports, critical maneuvering areas and militarily sensitive zones. I oversee Coast Guard rulemaking, environmental review, marine event permitting, and vessel traffic management for Northern California waterways and 7 major ports, including the nation's 4th largest container port.
Q10. Is there anything else that you would like to share?
A. I challenge all students to "dig deep" and ask themselves what they want to contribute to society. There are countless opportunities to make it happen, and the Coast Guard Academy may be one of them.