The Coast Guard Academy’s largest and most diverse class graduated Wednesday, starting their careers as new officers in the Coast Guard at an unprecedented time, as the U.S. and much of the world continue to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic and its upheaval of daily lives.
The spring semester for the 248 members of the Class of 2020 ended “at the kitchen table or at the couch in the family room,” said Superintendent Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, addressing cadets during the virtual commencement ceremony, a first for the academy.
Cadets left campus for spring break March 9 and never returned. Despite the unusual and abrupt end to their academy careers, which led to “lost opportunities and missed events,” the class found creative and innovative ways to continue their studies while also leading the rest of the student body, Kelly said.
“You did this regardless of where you were and what your circumstances were. You found a way to make it work,” he said. “Your resiliency and dedication is unprecedented and, because of this, you may be the most prepared ensigns we have ever graduated.”
Ensign Logan Morin of Norwich said that, in a way, it was fitting that he and his classmates “went out of the academy in a very unplanned way,” as much of their careers in the Coast Guard will involve “trying to navigate what we didn’t plan for.”
In 30 days, or sooner in some cases, the new ensigns will arrive at their first duty stations.
Morin will report June 15 to the cutter Seneca, currently based in Boston, to serve as a deck watch officer.
The last historic event to impact the academy’s graduation was World War II, said Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Karl Schultz, which resulted in the classes of 1942 through 1947 graduating early so they could immediately deploy in support of the war efforts.
Their worldview and leadership philosophy was shaped by “the clash of great powers and a war that impacted every single nation on Earth, just as your career trajectory as commissioned officers will be shaped by the current COVID-19 pandemic, the most consequential health crisis in our collective memories,” Schultz said.
While they didn’t get to sit shoulder to shoulder on Cadet Memorial Field, the virtual commencement afforded the Class of 2020 the chance to receive congratulatory messages from celebrities like Al Roker of “The Today Show” and actor Kevin Costner, and high-ranking military officials like Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who otherwise would not have been a part of the ceremony.
Absent the usual pomp and circumstance, the class made the moment special in its own way, with the help of loved ones.
Ensign Claire Hurley changed into her dress whites after her name was called during the livestreamed event and, when she walked outside her home on Doyle Road in Waterford, she was greeted by dozens of neighbors, who’ve watched her grow up over the years, at the end of her driveway with balloons and champagne.
Hurley, who graduated nearly 40 years to the day after the first women graduated from the academy, is part of the largest group of women to graduate in the academy’s history. She said she is eager to start her career and that the last few months have taught her “you have to be ready and adaptable.”
“The Coast Guard has a varied mission set, and you have to be ready to do what the Coast Guard asks of you,” said Hurley, who is headed to Florida to start work in the port inspections division for Coast Guard Sector Miami.
That was a message iterated by the keynote speaker, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who addressed the cadets in a prerecorded video message. Noting the Coast Guard’s motto “semper paratus,” or always ready, he said the ensigns should be prepared to be thrust into a leadership position in which they will have to take decisive action and take charge of situations they did not see coming.
“Few of your colleagues likely expected to be responding to the challenge of a global pandemic, but they have seen remarkable successes because they prepared themselves for the unexpected,” Wolf said. “Going forward, you must learn from their examples so you can respond to the next national or global crisis.”
While graduates of the other U.S. service academies go on to further training, Ensign Kate Ashbey of Waterford said the Coast Guard is unique in that they go straight to the fleet.
Ashbey’s first assignment is on the cutter Kathleen Moore based in Key West, Florida.
Despite the pandemic, Ashbey said she and her classmates “still have a job to do and we are the next watch.”
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