Brianne Cook hugged her mother goodbye just before embarking on three weeks of training at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy -- a moment that represented the culmination of a lifelong goal.
Cook, 19, of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, is one of 255 candidates, 50 of whom are women, who began an intensive 20-day-long indoctrination Tuesday in Kings Point.
"I'm really proud of her," Cook's twin, Bayley, said through tears, explaining that her sister has wanted to be an officer since the pair were in elementary school.U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Indoctrination Day
"This is what she's wanted to do for a really long time," Bayley Cook said. "It's good to see her finally accomplish it."
The mission of the school, one of five U.S. service academies, is to provide trained deck or engineering officers to serve on private ships or military vessels. Graduates of the four-year program leave with Coast Guard licenses and Naval Reserve appointments.
The indoctrination, which emphasizes military discipline, daily regimental routine, hygiene, physical fitness, and basic seamanship, is designed to instill unity and teamwork, academy officials said.
"The key element of indoc is everyone's going to get comfortable in vessels," said Commandant of Midshipmen, Capt. Bob DeStafney.
During the next 20 days, candidates will experience powered watercrafts, rowboats and sailboats, he said.
DeStafney said the academy strives to increase the number of women and minorities attending the school.
"We want our student body to look like the nation," he said.
The class of 2019 has the highest percentage of female candidates in the academy's history.
Cecil Maloney of Lynbrook said he was proud of his grandson, Patrick Deegan, 20, who recently earned an associate degree from Nassau Community College, for getting into the school.
"This, to me, is a pearl," Maloney said of the academy.
Deegan's younger brother, Liam, 19, already attends the academy and will work there during the summer as an emergency medical technician.
Liam scored higher on standardized test scores and was accepted into the academy out of high school. Deegan said his younger brother encouraged him to attend the academy.
"It's going to be weird because I'm going to have to salute him," he said with a smile.
After bidding their families goodbye, the candidates learned how to stand at attention, respond to their commanding officers, and "snap pop," or step and turn smoothly on command.
All of the male candidates' hair was buzzed.
"This is the welcome haircut," barber Eric Bayer said as he methodically shaved several inches of brown hair off the head of Jerom Sims, 18, of Santa Clarita, California.
In the blazing hot courtyard, squad leaders ordered candidates to recite details of the academy they had just begun to learn, such as the USMMA honor code (a midshipman will not lie, cheat or steal) and the school's motto ("acta non verba," which means "deeds not words.")
DeStafney described the candidates' first day as "a rude awakening."
Superintendent Rear Adm. James Helis encouraged the candidates' loved ones to "let struggle."
"All of them are going to struggle with some aspect of life here," he said.
"There's gonna be some bumps in the road," he said. "It'll work out. they're great young men and women and they're going to be great leaders of our nation come the next four years."
Cook, who said she had always wanted to be an officer in the military, acknowledged the indoctrination would be challenging: "I'm nervous. It's an excited nervous, though. "