When Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Katrina hit Puerto Rico, massive devastation ensued for islanders. Homes and businesses were lost. Livelihoods were upended.
“Who was there to help clean up the horrible mess?” posed Dr. Gladys Brignoni, Chief Learning Officer and Deputy Commander of Force Readiness Command (FORCECOM).
Although the Coast Guard is involved in Puerto Rico’s hurricane efforts, oil spills, and maritime and humanitarian challenges, many natives to the island are not familiar with the Coast Guard as a whole. However, Brignoni is trying to change that.
She, alongside her colleagues at Recruiting Command, are spearheading efforts to help educate Puerto Ricans about the Coast Guard’s mission and vision.
“We have a real opportunity to diversify our workforce,” stated Brignoni. “Which will lead to innovation, different ways of thinking, and tackling the myriad of challenges that we’re facing right now in our society, the maritime world, and the Coast Guard at large.”
Spreading the word about the Coast Guard has been the first step to embolden recruitment. This has presented its own set of challenges since the Navy and Army have a formidable presence on the island, according to Brignoni. When Puerto Rican men and women have decided to enlist in the Coast Guard though, a problem arose.
All newly enlisted recruits must go to the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey, where they undergo a rigorous eight-week bootcamp that puts their physical and mental limits to the test. For English speakers, boot camp is hard enough. But factor in a language barrier, and training becomes exponentially more tough for English as a Second Language, especially Puerto Rican recruits.
“We were kicking them out of Cape May if their English wasn’t good enough,” said Brignoni. “But remember, you’re at boot camp. You’re being yelled at constantly, and you are already stressed out. You might not be understanding everything.”
After being sent home from Cape May, many folks felt discouraged and told others to join the Navy or Army instead of the Coast Guard. When Brignoni caught word of what was occurring, she knew she needed to step in and be of service since she knows from personal experience what it is like to overcome linguistic hurdles.
Born in Puerto Rico, Brignoni moved to a small town in Indiana as a young girl, knowing only a few basic English words from Sesame Street. Over time, she learned English, went on to get her Master’s and Ph.D. in Education from Indiana University, and currently is in the Coast Guard’s Senior Executive Service. The Coast Guard has provided her with unique avenues for professional development and advancement. Now, she is trying to pay it forward.
Recently, Brignoni and her colleagues at FORCECOM launched an English as a Second Language (ESL) program that helps eager Puerto Rican recruits fine-tune their English skills to better understand commands and succeed at bootcamp.
Capt. Richter Tipton explained how the ESL program will work. Starting this August, a small cohort of Puerto Rican recruits will go to boot camp in Cape May for one week and then will pause to go down to San Antonio, Texas, to learn English. “It will be their full-time job,” he said.
When a person’s proficiency level is high enough, they will go back to Capy May and pick up with the next recruitment class during the second week of boot camp. According to Tipton, there will be a group of 10 folks to kick off the inaugural ESL program. They will be divided into two cohorts of five and will undergo English training. Although a full ESL training cycle is between 13 and 15 weeks, he doesn’t foresee all recruits needing that length of time if they have previous English knowledge and comprehension.
“There is a group of qualified people who are ready to rock and roll,” said Tipton. “But bringing them in has been a matter of language training. So, we are excited to launch this program.”
Another opportunity for Puerto Rican recruits to engage with the Coast Guard is also on the horizon. The service is now partnering with one of Puerto Rico’s highest-ranked universities. Students at Universidad Ana G. Méndez (UAGM) are now eligible for College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI), which is a scholarship program that pays for a person’s education and leads to a guaranteed officer commission upon graduation.
CSPI students receive full funding for up to two years of college. Funding includes tuition, books, fees, housing allowances, medical benefits, and a full-time Coast Guard salary. During the academic year, students participate in Coast Guard activities and often work at an air station, small boat station, or a sector in between their coursework.
After finishing their junior year, they travel to New London, Connecticut, for a three-week leadership course. Following their college graduation, CSPI students complete a 17-week officer candidate school (OCS) in New London, in which they receive a commission as an ensign (O-1) and an assignment to a sector, cutter, or flight school.
As Dr. Brignoni noted, this nascent partnership with UACM and the Coast Guard is a unique way to provide both educational and career pathways to local communities in Puerto Rico. She hopes it will expose natives to the service’s operational missions on the island and the Eastern Caribbean writ large.
“In order to have an effective force, the Coast Guard strives to promote diversity in our ranks and to introduce people to our service and missions,” concluded Brignoni. The ESL program and the UAGM-USCG partnership are just the beginning to attract emerging Puerto Rican talent.
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College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (Scholarship Program)