Opportunity at Sea

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My earliest years were spent in a row house near Baltimore's waterfront. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that our maritime tradition and the opportunities offered by the maritime professions became closely associated in my thinking. After all, it was right here, working in Baltimore's shipyards, that Frederick Douglass planned and perfected his journey to freedom.

What did surprise me was the realization that, despite living in one of America's greatest ports, few of our city's young people were making that same connection. If ever I have the chance, I promised myself, I will do something about this contradiction.

Decades later, I eagerly accepted the offer to play a role in the development of Baltimore's Maritime Industries Academy High School. When I chaired the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, I had the opportunity to oversee implementation of the Coast Guard's extraordinary missions — including search and rescue, marine safety, port security, and fighting pollution. In the process, I became a genuine supporter of the Coast Guard, and, at times, I also have been a constructive critic.

As chairman, I worked to reform the Service's management of its multi-million dollar annual acquisitions and to strengthen its regulation of merchant shipping. We examined the multiple factors causing fewer foreign-trading vessels to fly the U.S. flag.

Remembering my promise to myself, I also pushed the Coast Guard to expand diversity in all of its ranks.

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I reminded its leadership that our nation's diversity is not a problem to be managed. Rather, it is a promise to be realized — if we are willing to undertake the hard work that is required.

Beginning in late 2008, I convened a series of hearings to examine how best to meet this challenge, especially at the Coast Guard Academy (where minorities comprised just 12 percent of the Class of 2012 and just 16 percent of the Class of 2013).

The Coast Guard initially asserted that the pool of interested minorities likely to succeed at the Academy was limited. However, based upon my experience as a member of the Board of Visitors of the US Naval Academy (where more than one-third of the Class of 2013 is comprised of minorities), I knew that we could do better.

One problem immediately became clear: few minority students were aware of the excellent education and opportunities for service that the Coast Guard offers. I encouraged the Coast Guard to expand its outreach. To its credit, the Coast Guard responded constructively.

During the last two years, the Coast Guard Academy has more than doubled its outreach and admissions budget, connecting with students in communities (like Baltimore’s) where many had never before considered maritime careers.

Now, we are beginning to realize diversity’s promise. More than one-third of the Coast Guard Academy's Class of 2015 is comprised of minority students — nearly triple the percentage found in the Class of 2012.

It is also worth noting that the Coast Guard has achieved these gains without sacrificing its academic standards. The average SAT score for this more diverse class of incoming students has increased from 1300 (for the Class of 2014) to 1330 (for the Class of 2015). This is very good news — both for the Coast Guard and for our country.

Equally encouraging are the Coast Guard’s new academic partnerships with minority-serving institutions. Earlier this month, Morgan State University's President Dr. David Wilson and I joined Admiral Karl Schultz aboard the National Security Cutter, Stratton, for the inauguration of the Coast Guard's new partnership with Morgan State.

This joint effort will enable Morgan State’s students (many of whom are studying the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines so critical to our homeland security) to widen their perspective on the world through their interactions with our nation's oldest sea service. The Coast Guard will help interested Morgan State students apply for the Coast Guard's Government Civilian Career Management Mentorship Program, Student Temporary Employment Program and Student Career Experience Program. Summer employment opportunities for Morgan students will include the AIM Engineering Mentor Academy.

The Coast Guard mentors will also help interested Morgan students apply for the Coast Guard's College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative Program, which can help them pay for their college education in return for their subsequent service as Coast Guard officers.

Since the time of Frederick Douglass, we have known that the effort to open the doors of opportunity to all will never be finished. It always will be a work in progress. We all have important roles to play in this work — and, thanks to the Coast Guard, Morgan State University and our Maritime Industries Academy educators, many of Baltimore’s young people will find their greatest opportunities at sea.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.