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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 19, 2021

First to lead the way

By courtesy Coast Guard Academy

Whenever there is a cultural barrier that is broken, there is someone who had to be “the first” to do something a bit different. At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy one of the people who were the first to lead the way is Dr. Janet McLeavey.  

Two years before the first women joined the Corps of Cadets at the Academy, McLeavey accepted a position as an assistant professor and became the institution’s first female faculty member. When she joined the mathematics department in 1974, she didn’t realize she was making history.  

“Looking back, I was fairly naïve,” she recalled. “It never occurred to me that there might not be other women at the Coast Guard Academy.”

McLeavey earned a doctoral degree from Indiana University, and arrived at the Academy after teaching at Emmanuel College in Boston. She first taught at the Academy from 1974 until 1979, and after having two children, she returned 10 years later to rejoin the faculty. She later became the first woman to lead the Department of Mathematics from 1998-2002.

Shortly after she arrived, McLeavey was asked to join a committee assigned to assist with incorporating the first women at the Academy into the corps. 

“These young women were not complainers,” she said, “but they just needed to be heard. Often it was just our being available to listen and support them that helped as they struggled through this assimilation process.”   

“I knew many of those women from the Class of 1980 personally,” she said, “some of whom I am still in contact with.”  

Today 40% of the Corps of Cadets at the Academy is made up of women.  

McLeavey has had an impact on generations of female Coast Guard officers, but her influence doesn’t stop there. Earlier in her career, McLeavey led the committee that developed the Academy’s Operations Research & Computer Analysis major.
The study of Operations Research and Computer Analysis (ORCA) highlights how mathematics and computers can be used to analyze complex problems and improve decision-making. 

“As a department, we seek projects from the Coast Guard. When I first started, it meant a lot of phone calls, trying to get someone interested in offering us a project,” she said. “Now we're at the point where units seek our ORCA majors to help with their projects. I think this year we received 30 different proposals, all looking for ORCA majors.”

The capstone course for seniors is a key aspect of the ORCA major that was developed under McLeavey’s leadership. In capstone courses, cadets tackle real-world projects that address real-world problems from across the Coast Guard. This summer, ORCA majors interned at Coast Guard headquarters and worked with the Data Readiness Task Force (DRTF), which is charged with improving data quality and decision making in the Coast Guard for years to come. 

As the longest serving faculty member at the Academy, McLeavey also serves a ceremonial role as macebearer during commencement exercises. The macebearer leads the academic procession during commencement exercises, and by tapping the mace on the podium signals the start of graduation.  

When she served as macebearer during commencement earlier this year, it marked the last time she would have that honor. McLeavey retired in August after nearly 37 years of service.  

“When I do close my office door for the last time,” she said, “it will be with a tremendous gratefulness for having had this opportunity to be part of this special corps.”

Dr. McLeavey’s comments were taken with permission from a transcript of an oral history interview with the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) from 2021.