“Will I be able to secure a well-paying job? Will I be able to pay off student loans?
As the cost of tuition rises and student loan debt continues to make headlines, these are questions students and their families may brood over.
Higher education is one pathway toward achieving prosperity and security, and the Coast Guard College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI) makes achieving both feasible for motivated students who want to serve their country within the U.S. Coast Guard. One of the six American armed forces, the Coast Guard is a maritime military service within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It is responsible for executing 11 missions required by acts passed by the U.S. Congress. Among these 11 missions are drug interdiction; ports, waterways, and coastal security; search and rescue, and more.
“CSPI was the conduit to secure my undergraduate education. Knowing tuition was paid for and that I had a great job after graduation removed the stress and anxiety I saw many of my peers experience. The program provided me a sense of security and purpose right away,” said Capt. Patrick Burkett, chief of the 13th Coast Guard District’s Prevention Division.
The CSPI is a scholarship program, open to students of all races and ethnicities, which pays up to two academic years of college tuition at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). While enrolled in school, a CSPI candidate is enlisted in the Coast Guard. Students receive a salary, allowances, entitlements, and the benefits of being an active duty service member. Upon graduation from college, officer trainees complete Officer Candidate School and receive a commission as ensigns. They go on to serve as leaders in a wide array of assignments— from counterdrug and counterterrorism; to preventing and responding to oil and chemical spills; to ensuring safe navigation, and much more.
Eligibility requirements apply, including passing a medical commissioning physical and being between the ages of 19 and 28, in most cases. No prior military service is required. Current and former Coast Guard members with no more than four years of active duty service, as of the selection panel date, are eligible to apply. Current and former service members from other branches of the military are eligible to apply as well. All applicants for the CSPI must work with a Coast Guard recruiter to prepare and submit their comprehensive application.
“My career in the military has provided me a sense of safety, security, and prosperity. Nothing I have achieved professionally or opportunities I have been offered would be possible if I didn't attend an MSI,” said CSPI alumna, Lt. Shelly Allen, a first-generation college graduate and response ashore officer and chief at Sector Charleston’s Command Center.
Both Allen and Burkett are proud Bulldogs— graduates of South Carolina State University (SCSU).
“SCSU is a small university and we were always expected to attack everything with tenacity and creativity. I brought that same mentality with me into the Coast Guard and it has definitely aided me in staying focused and locked in on getting the job done,” said Burkett.
MSIs are colleges and universities where at least 25% of the student population is made up of underrepresented minority students. MSIs demonstrate a history of service to first-generation college graduate, underserved, and lower-income students, according to Alexandra Hegji, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS analysts serve as nonpartisan shared staff to all U.S. Congressional committees and members of Congress.
MSIs were established for a variety of purposes, including the fact that people who were not White were historically denied admission to traditionally White institutions, according to the Congressional Research Service. Take for example land-grant institutions. The First Morrill Act of 1862 established an endowment for land-grant colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts. Senator Justin Morrill, sponsor of the legislation, had a vision of higher education for all, but segregation was still widely practiced especially in southern and border states. An abolitionist, Morrill sponsored the Second Morrill Act, and in 1890 it was passed into law. It demanded Black Americans be included in the land-grant system. It also required states with separate colleges for Black and White citizens to designate or establish a college to educate Black American students in agriculture, mechanical arts, and architecture. These are the historically black universities known as the 1890 Land-Grant Universities.
MSIs also include:
- Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions (ANNHs)
- American Indian Alaska Native Serving institutions (AIANSIs)
- Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs)
- Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs)
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); this designation includes, but is not limited to, the institutions created through the Second Morrill Act of 1890.
- Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs)
- Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs)
“Decades of research have shown that organizations with diverse workforces outperform and out-innovate organizations with homogeneous personnel. Growing a diverse and inclusive workforce is necessary to the continued readiness of the Coast Guard,” said Cmdr. Yamaris Barril, MSI liaison, Coast Guard Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Barril is an alumna of Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (Sacred Heart University) and CSPI.
The Coast Guard has memoranda of understanding designed to optimize outreach, engagement, recruitment, and research with 21 MSIs.
"Since Fall 2021, we have hosted Military Appreciation Days, dedicated a room in our ROTC facility in honor of Army lieutenant colonel, Dr. Jona McKee, and began offering a military readjustment certification program," said Dr. Makola M. Abdullah, President of Virginia State University (VSU). "We are very proud to continue supporting our armed forces, including the development of Coast Guard leaders from the beginning of their military careers and beyond for the benefit of our nation,” Makola said.
For Lt. j.g. Cody E. Mitchell, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Beluga, graduating from VSU changed his life, he said.
“Growing up in a predominantly white society in rural Pennsylvania, attending a Minority Serving Institution was a cultural experience I had never had before and am so grateful for. At first, I told myself that I was just going to go to class, back to the resident hall, join the Coast Guard, graduate, and never look back, but God had a different plan for me. I have met lifelong friends who I am still very close to and see as much as possible despite us moving all over the country after graduation. I developed my leadership skills while I served in the Student Government Association and as a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. I learned history about minority groups that I never learned in grade school; this was deep, rich history which expanded my thinking and helped me ask the right questions and think outside the box in the Coast Guard. The opportunities have been endless; I could write a book about them,” Mitchell said.
In 2021, Mitchell was a contributing author of “The HBCU Experience, The Virginia State University Edition.” The book is a collection of stories written by prominent alumni that depict how VSU shaped them into the leaders they are today. It became a #1 New Best Seller in the College & University Student Life category on Amazon. Mitchell credits VSU professors and mentors for challenging him academically and motivating him to think deeply. He credits Reverend Dr. Delano Douglas for stoking his leadership potential and strengthening his spiritual fitness, he said.
For Lt. Tia Grandville, a proud alumna of Spelman College and officer recruiter at the Coast Guard’s Hampton Roads Recruiting Office, the CSPI program and her service in the Coast Guard are about making a positive difference.
“For decades, minorities— black children have felt isolated, experienced helplessness and self-doubt, and have had their confidence, talents; skills diminished. It’s so important that we create spaces for them to be and feel included. Seeing people who look like you; having access to people who may come from similar backgrounds, or have similar experiences as you provides a sense of inspiration. Each day I put on my uniform, I do it for all the young black girls I’ve mentored, my younger sisters; my nieces. When they (children) see me, it’s as if I’m a super hero. When children see people like them succeeding, they know they can do it too,” she said. “It’s important to attract the best of America’s diverse population and reflect all the people and communities we serve.”
Women as well as racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented at all levels of the Coast Guard— especially in higher ranks and among senior leadership according to the 2021 “Holistic Study and Analysis for Recruiting and Retention of Underrepresented Minorities.” The Coast Guard partnered with independent third-party researchers at RAND’s Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) to produce the report.
The CSPI Program is the successor to the Minority Officer Recruitment Effort (MORE), which was established in 1989. Approximately 550 graduates have received a commission as an officer in the Coast Guard since the program’s inception. In 2021, Capt. Michael E. Platt, a 1992 graduate of Hampton University, became the first alumnus of the MORE/CSPI program to be selected for the rank of rear admiral lower half and Grandville believes he will not be the last, she said.
“People, especially youth and young adults, are my passion. I want to see all of them succeed as they develop into tomorrow’s leaders, so recruiting is extremely important to me. I have the opportunity to interact with the public on a daily basis, educate them about the Coast Guard and CSPI, and share my personal experiences as a CSPI recipient and Coast Guard officer. I thoroughly enjoy visiting the different universities and building relationships with faculty, staff, students, and parents. Furthermore, I get to network with some of the Coast Guard’s senior leaders and discuss a way forward to increase awareness of the Coast Guard opportunities in diverse communities and ultimately effect change in recruitment and retention,” Grandville said.