The college experience can be a grueling academic gauntlet for any young person striking out on their own. For most, those trials don’t include carrying a heavy log.
Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (CGA) bear the load of academics, athleticism and a mastery of military skills, a balancing act reserved for the tenacious students that are admitted. Before the famed log carry that concludes Swab Summer, a worthy few within each class commit to an extraordinary effort to prepare for the service academy lifestyle.
The Coast Guard Academy Scholars (CGAS) Program sends students for one year of preparatory school to develop academically, physically, and militarily. Designed to develop the necessary foundation for success as a CGA cadet, the program begins with a rigorous three-week orientation at the Academy’s campus in New London, Connecticut, after which 70 Cadet Candidates are sent to Marion Military Institute in Marion, Alabama, the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island or Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Maybe they were a military kid with math credits that did not quite add up after all those relocations, or maybe the inertia of their high school physics coursework needs to be advanced. With collegiate needs as unique as their individual backgrounds, a single academic year spent at one of the three preparatory schools is often more than enough to bridge the person they are with the cadet they will become.
Each future cadet works with a Coast Guard mentor through every phase of their prep year.
Support, Mentorship and Guidance
“The goal of the Coast Guard Academy Scholars Program is to get every single one of those students to and more importantly through the Academy,” said Chris McMunn, the Associate Director for Operations at the Academy’s Admissions Office. McMunn, who graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1997, stressed the individual level of support given to each of these scholars. The year at the prep schools ensures an equitable start to the Academy experience, “We want them [CGAS Cadet Candidates] to not just survive, we want them to thrive once they get to CGA. We know how challenging the first year at the Academy is for anyone, so we set them up for success.”
Once selected for the CGAS Program, the future cadet candidates are matched with the preparatory school that best offers the opportunity for not just academic but also personal growth, taking extracurricular programs like aviation training, music and performing arts groups, or athletic teams with strength & conditioning regimes into consideration.
CGAS staff coordinate a calendar of both in-person and virtual visits, morale boosting and professional development outings, immersive Academy experiences, and maintain a close partnership with each prep school’s liaison officer.
The support from CGAS staff includes running a switchboard of resources: directing students to online and on-campus tutoring, prep school academic staff and assets, and providing a steady person-to-person connection, familiar with the complexity of a civilian to military transition.
In addition to support with navigating academic matters, the Coast Guard’s senior leaders stationed in areas surrounding the prep schools have been known to check in on their future coworkers. According to McMunn, the visits not only motivate and help the students remain connected to their chosen service, but they also sometimes result in a professional connection that lasts well beyond the prep school experience.
“We obviously believe there is something special about these individuals. The Commandant of the Coast Guard, our [CGA] Superintendent, district commanders, and local area commanding officers have visited the prep schools,” McMunn said. “We want every single cadet candidate to be successful. If there is something they are struggling with, we are going to open multiple lines of communication for them to tell us. This is not a journey that we are expecting them to make alone.”
Working well beyond VIP visitors, formal mentorship pairings have played an important role in the high retention and graduation rates of the CGAS Program. McMunn explained both the personal and professional support that mentors provide, “We assign individual mentors at both the cadet and junior officer level. By pairing them up with a cadet who was in the [CGAS] program just two or three years ago, each cadet candidate has direct access to someone who knows exactly what they’re going through because they did it themselves.”
Junior officer mentors are often CGAS or CGA alum, but also include direct-to-commission officers with careers or backgrounds that align with the CGAS Scholar. The wizened teammates help their CGAS mentees understand the long game, “They have the perspective of time and can tell them, ‘I understand your calculus exam or room inspection is going to be hard this week, but this is why you’re doing those kinds of things now. These are some of the amazing experiences and opportunities that are over the horizon and waiting for you in the Coast Guard,’” McMunn said.
Lieutenant Brandon Strickland, the CGAS Program Manager, serves as the primary CGAS point of contact in the ecosystem of resources built around these students. “We are sounding boards, we are mentors, we are guides, but what’s most important about all this is that we’re getting them partnered with the right organizations that care about the same kinds of things that we do, that share our core values.”
Enlisted to Cadet
While most participating in the CGAS Program would be considered traditional students – headed straight from high school to the collegiate path – the CGAS prep school pipeline was initially built for enlisted members who had stepped away from the formal academic environment while serving.
While not as common today as it was in the past, the junior enlisted to CGAS Cadet Candidate transfer does occur every year. The military bearing and maturity that these experienced enlisted-to-cadets bring to the Academy often results in immediate recognition from their cadet colleagues, many being selected as class president or filling other leadership roles among the Corps.
CGAS AT A GLANCE
- 20+ year old program
- About 60 future cadets complete prep school every year
- Average CGA graduation rate is 88% – the same as CGA cadets who didn’t go to prep school