Merchant Marine Academy welcomes most diverse class

Midshipman Justin Lindstrom of Dallas hugs his sister

Midshipman Justin Lindstrom of Dallas hugs his sister Kimberlee, 7, at a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy ceremony. The academy in Kings Point welcomed 237 "plebes" for the Class of 2017 Regiment of Midshipmen during the acceptance day event. (Sept. 7, 2013) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

The 237 freshmen -- or plebes -- inducted into the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy on Saturday reflected a subtle shift in the makeup of the Regiment of Midshipmen: The Class of 2017 touts the highest ratio of females to males in 10 years.

Amid a sea of white service uniforms, 38 women stood with their male counterparts, distinguishable from a distance only by their style of hat. They represent 16 percent of the new class, the second-highest percentage of women in the academy's history, and part of a growth trend.

"I think there's more women in general in the military," said 17-year-old Alissa Fentress, a plebe from Denton, Texas. "The benefits here are outstanding, coming out of this school."

The academy's curriculum is geared toward math and science, with half of its students studying engineering, said Rear Adm. James Helis.

Historically, the academy has attracted more males, but recruitment efforts are strong, Helis said. Academy data show that women represented only 10.3 percent of the Class of 2013, but the ratio has risen each year, with one outlier: The highest percentage of women ever was the Class of 2007, with 16.8 percent female students.

"The trend on both women and other minorities has been on the upswing for the last several years," Helis said. "The Merchant Marine Academy is a national institution . . . so the Regiment of Midshipmen needs to be reflective of -- look like -- the nation that we are here to serve."

The minority percentage has steadily risen each year. The Class of 2017 is 23 percent minority, compared with 14.4 percent in the Class of 2013.

The academy lags behind other service academies in the country in terms of diversity of their student population, but it's working to close the gap, Helis said.

"It is a very challenging academic environment and a very rigorous training environment, so it's not for everybody. In order to entice some of our diverse candidates, it takes a strong outreach program," said Paul "Chip" Jaenichen, acting maritime administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"We're pretty encouraged with what [Helis] and his team have done in the last year, bringing in what is the most diverse class that we've had."

The Kings Point academy received 2,252 applications this year and accepted students from 46 states. There is no tuition, but graduates must commit to service.

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