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Merchant Marine Academy is overreacting on Sea Year

Kate O'Connor is a graduate of the Merchant

Kate O'Connor is a graduate of the Merchant Marine Academy. Photo Credit: handout

The first federal service academy to admit women is risking its legacy by watering down its renowned curriculum in the name of protecting them.

I speak of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, an institution like its counterparts at West Point and Annapolis. It trains future officers to serve in the U.S. commercial fleet or the armed forces. In 1974, under progressive leadership, it was the first academy to recognize it couldn’t keep its doors closed to half the U.S. population and still accomplish its mission. It has come a long way since that first co-ed class, and today nearly 20 percent of the student body is female.

When I accepted my congressional nomination to the academy in 2009, I knew I was entering a male-dominated environment. But I also knew the academics were rigorous, and that the crown jewel of my education would be my year at sea aboard a U.S. commercial vessel. To say Sea Year, a period in sophomore and junior years, was invaluable is an understatement.

As at many other colleges and universities, instances of sexual misconduct have been documented at the academy. Schools must address this, including my alma mater, because no students should be subjected to assault during their college experience.

Unfortunately, perhaps sensing pressure from incidents publicized by the media, the academy has suspended mission-critical training on commercial vessels — known as Sea Year — to give the impression it is taking the reports of misconduct seriously. This is a mistake — and a setback for modern feminism — as Sea Year doesn’t put midshipmen in danger or lead to sexual misconduct on campus.

Sea Year was the single most compelling aspect of attending the academy. While at sea as a cadet and licensed engineer, I sailed on two steam ships and four motor vessels that transported either containerized cargo or fuel. These ships traveled to Antarctica, Guam, China, Australia and Greece. I was the officer responsible for the overall operation and maintenance of engine room machinery. Without Sea Year, my education would have been just like that at every other university. To this day, it has helped me stand out from other job applicants.

I never thought of myself as “the female engineer,” but being in a male-dominated environment required adjustments. Sometimes I’d cringe while hearing testosterone-fueled conversations wrought with foul or distasteful language, but I never felt unsafe or that I was in a situation that I couldn’t handle.

If a problem had arisen, there were people I could have gone to for advice. I had the support of my superiors and felt equal to everyone else. As a midshipman, I never felt at risk of being attacked or violated on campus or at sea. Kings Point is a campus just like any college. Kids study, have fun with friends, play sports and don’t sleep enough. It is safe.

For most of my time at Kings Point, I was the only woman in a section of 12 men, all of whom became like brothers to me. We looked out for each other. From time to time, there were inappropriate conversations, but when I made my objections known, my brothers would uniformly apologize and pipe down.

The decision to cancel Sea Year on commercial ships is an overreaction to a problem that may or may not exist. Female midshipmen or graduates were not consulted, and the justification for the changes were unsubstantiated. The changes have disrupted the lives of those who want to serve our nation. I fear fewer high school seniors will consider the academy now that its curriculum is neutered.

I am a proud woman who graduated from Kings Point. I know the value of my education, and I cannot believe that in December 2016, a month after we had a woman nearly win the presidency, the academy is saying we can’t handle a year at sea.

Kate O’Connor graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 2013. She sailed as an engineering officer on U.S.-flag vessels and is a mechanical engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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