Remember what it was like in high school when you slithered into a class and slipped into the back row, hoping to survive the next hour unnoticed?
That’s just what I did at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy last week.
But how can a someone who is much older than the 20-something cadets pull this off? I didn’t look the part. No dark blue uniform. No hair pulled tightly back in a bun (the guys had the buzz cuts). And I wasn’t up on the latest academy gossip or the seemed to be common knowledge that there’s some kind of pipe sticking out somewhere on the running track that just about everyone seems to be tripping over, including one cadet on crutches. (I hope I got that story right?)
I was hoping that Lt. Cmdr. Scott Calhoun wouldn’t sell me out. Cadets in his marine safety class didn’t know that I was a reporter for WorkBoat magazine, visiting the academy to speak to an earlier class about inland navigation and wanting to observe what future Coast Guard cadets are learning. Calhoun didn’t disappoint. He didn’t blow my cover.
I was free to take in the lesson with only a few strange looks and nods of “hello ma’am” from my classmates.
The academy is undergoing some curriculum changes, trying to put more of an accent on teaching future Coast Guard officers about the professional maritime trades. And within these changes is an emphasis on marine safety, introducing cadets to possible career paths involving inspection, boarding, investigations and mariner licensing.
This is a welcome shift, as marine safety has gotten a bad rap from industry, Congress and within the Coast Guard itself. Customers complained that the marine safety program had deteriorated in performance and service since 9/11, as resources shifted to security. Back in 2007, lawmakers threatened to move marine safety from the USCG to the Department of Transportation. Many within the Coast Guard viewed marine safety as a dead-end job.
But things are evolving. As a new post-9/11 generation, today’s cadets aren’t tainted by this past history. In fact many told me that marine safety was an attractive area of interest, as they felt they could make a difference in jobs affecting marine safety, the environment and security. About 20 percent of this year’s graduating class will go into marine safety billets.
On a beautiful spring day, Lt. Cmdr. Calhoun’s class was getting the more broader view of marine safety, what he called understanding marine safety as a system,” and students seemed genuinely engaged. They were learning about IMO, SOLAS, MARPOL, Port Safety Control, the Targeting Matrix for boarding, and the cultural challenges of boarding vessels from different countries.
I got a few of the answers right when Calhoun posed some questions. But I did get a few wrong. Good thing I was sitting in the back of the room and kept my mouth shut.
For more about curriculum changes at the Coast Guard Academy, watch for an upcoming story in WorkBoat.