"So, where are you going to school?" "Are you excited about college?" "What are you going to major in?" "Wait; tell me again – what is the Coast Guard?"
Like every graduating senior, I got all too familiar with the "hot-seat questions." And because I was interested in the service academy to be in – I'm talking about the United States Coast Guard Academy, you'll understand – I was very well acquainted with the polite, yet quizzical crooked-eyebrow questions, too. "Are you sure?" "Really? The military?" "You're gonna jump out of helicopters and stuff, like Ashton Kutcher, right?"
Truthfully, I can't hold the ignorance of my well-wishers against them. Even now as I am attending this fantastic institution, I find I am constantly expanding my definition of what being a Coast Guard Academy cadet, and a member of the Coast Guard, really means. As a senior in high school applying to come here though, what I knew about the Coast Guard didn't stretch much farther than what I saw on NCIS, when Gibbs and his team had the occasional joint case with CGIS, Coast Guard Investigative Services. In fact, I wasn't exactly gung ho about joining a service academy at all. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love sleeping in late, my Converse and flannel, and of course, my big hair. I love my afro – I had been working on getting my curl pattern just right all of my senior year – and if I joined the service I'd have to put my hair in a bun. A contained, conservative, neat and predictable bun. On top of all of that, I'm what some might call a tad bit headstrong; I tend to look at what everyone else is doing, and do the opposite because I hate being just like everybody else. I knew that more than ever after a visit to the Naval Academy. Don't get me wrong – they have a beautiful campus with outstanding professors, and I am proud to be friends with some of their midshipmen and graduates. But it made me want to pack my gear up and run in the opposite direction. I knew that I would become just another face in a crowd of geniuses and talented athletes if I went there, and I couldn't spend four years as a number.
It was a miracle the Coast Guard found me. My guidance counselor told my parents about the school after she heard my parents talking about the Naval Academy visit, and my dad had me signed up to be a Cadet for a Day not long afterwards. The night before the trip I had my tough girl mask on already secured on my face. I was only going to humor my dad; after my trip to Annapolis there was no way I was giving up my freedom of hair expression to be a part of a gray, impersonal organization that made me march to and from class in a scratchy, stiff uniform.
We drove on campus, and my mask started to crack immediately. I saw the track right next to the Thames river, and I had to bite my lip and clench my fists to keep from completely losing control. It. Was. Gorgeous. I didn't even notice how cold I was. (Okay, I definitely noticed it. Here I am, a Georgia peach in New London, Connecticut in the middle of December. I was freezing!) But, as I went from small class to small class, and then to family style lunch and had conversations with inviting, passionate people, I couldn't help but start to picture myself coming here. Of course, I'm extremely stubborn, so I didn't let myself admit it until after a meeting with admissions the next day.
No other college ever said that to me. I felt like I already had a home, and I hadn't even finished the application completely yet. I didn't know it then, but I had already made up my mind that I was born to be a Bear. I was born for Coast Guard Blue.
Since then, I've completed two and a half weeks of CGAS training, one rather interesting year at prep school in Marion, Alabama, two months of Swab Summer, almost half of a semester as a fourth class cadet, and turned 20 years old. It's nothing like I expected, and everything I've hoped for all at the same time, and I haven't even started taking my major-specific courses yet. The mission keeps me driven, the people keep me grounded, and the stories I keep hearing keep me inspired. Nowhere else on earth are there so many young people who revere honor, honor duty, and are dedicated to serving people now , not sometime in the distant future. I've been adopted and grafted into a community of people who look nothing like me, sound nothing like me, enjoy cold weather and think it's cool to wake up at 0545 to scream at a clock. It sounds cliché, I know, but these people know what it looks like on the outside and have hearts that beat for those in peril. The cadets here care about the welfare of the people around them. They care about life, and giving everyone the opportunity to live it to the fullest. Our differences, though numerous, are what make us that much more amazing when we put on the uniform. And that is why, when anyone asks me what is so special about the Coast Guard, I have to laugh. The Coast Guard is made up of brilliant, talented, honest human beings who sincerely care about protecting the earth and the people in it. I could sit here all day long telling you how great the Academy is, how strong the men and women of the Guard are, but you wouldn't really understand until you saw us in action. I think about my experience every day, and it reminds me why I couldn't be anywhere else.
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