The Naval Academy recently hosted its annual Astronaut Convocation, inviting five of our 53 astronaut graduates to the Yard to discuss the future of the space program with the Brigade of Midshipmen. Among them was U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Nicole Aunapu Mann (’99), the most recent United States Naval Academy (USNA) graduate to be selected by NASA.
Mann joins an illustrious line of Naval Academy alumnae who have served in the U.S. space program. One of the academy’s earliest woman graduates was retired Capt. Wendy Lawrence, my classmate from the great Class of 1981 and the first woman from USNA to fly in space. Capt. Sunita Williams (’87) is one of four members–and the only woman–on NASA’s new commercial spaceflight team, selected to partner with private sector companies developing spacecraft that will fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The Naval Academy’s representation in the past and future of space flight is just one example of our graduates’ achievements at the highest levels. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the integration of women at the Naval Academy, I’d like to highlight how far we’ve come and look ahead in anticipation of a bright future. On July 6, 1976, the Class of 1980 arrived on Induction Day. Four years later, 55 women from that class graduated, becoming the plankowners of gender integration at this great institution—an accomplishment that we celebrated last year at the 35th Reunion for the Class of 1980.
Compare that to our most recent graduates—of the 1,070 midshipmen who graduated last May, 204 were women.
And the numbers continue to grow. More women have applied for admission than ever before (over 4,300 applications!) for the soon to be inducted Class of 2020. The current Plebe Class of 2019 boasts the largest number of women in academy history—ANY academy—with 324 inducted last July. In a summer marked by near record-low attrition, every woman completed Plebe Summer.
Women now comprise more than a quarter of the Brigade. Female representation will continue to grow; America’s talented youth are clearly attracted to the Naval Academy and the missions of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. More importantly, beyond just the numbers, the evolution of gender integration has made significant positive progress over the past four decades. With combat positions being opened to all women starting next year, the attitude and personality of the Brigade has become one of inclusiveness for all, men and women.
Since 1980, more than 4,600 women have graduated from the Naval Academy and have gone on to excel in their military careers and beyond. Adm. Michelle Howard (’82) was the first African-American woman to reach flag rank as well as the first woman to wear four stars. She now serves as our vice chief of naval operations, the second-highest ranking position in the Navy. Rear Adm. Margaret Klein (’81), now senior advisor to the secretary of defense for military professionalism, was the first woman to serve as commandant of midshipmen. Marine Col. Roberta Shea (’91) recently served as the first female deputy commandant, and she is currently serving as the commanding officer of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Headquarters Group in Camp Pendleton, California.
Their legacy of leadership continues today within the Brigade. Midshipman 1st Class Jenna Westerberg serves as this semester’s Brigade commander, following on the heels of Midshipman 1st Class Margo Darragh’s leadership in the same position during the fall semester. This is the first academic year in which women earned the Brigade commander leadership position for both semesters.
The Brigade has a wealth of role models to choose from among their peers, including women who excel morally, mentally and physically. Midshipman 1st Class Megan Musilli is one of only 32 Americans and the only service academy student selected for a 2016 Rhodes Scholarship. She is a mathematics major and is training to become a Navy physician. Midshipman 1st Class Ally Strachan, a weapons and systems engineering major ranked in the top five percent of her class, was selected for the Mitchell Scholarship. Just last month, nuclear engineering major Midshipman 1st Class Megan Hough was selected for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of only 35 nationwide.
Amazingly, a nation-leading 42 percent of women at the Naval Academy compete in Division I NCAA Athletics on 15 different sports teams. Last semester, varsity soccer player Midshipman 3rd Class Meghan Hegarty was named to the Patriot League All-Academic squad and was chosen as a First-Team College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-District honoree. Five members of the Navy volleyball team recently earned placement on the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll. Women’s swimming and diving recently dominated the Patriot League Championship, winning the team title and all three individual meet awards (Swimmer, Diver and Rookie of the meet).
In addition to observing Women’s History Month throughout March, we will mark the anniversary of the integration of women at USNA with a variety of ceremonies and observances. Our annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) in April will focus on “Women and Security: The Implications of Promoting Global Gender Equality.” Our Commissioning Week in May and Induction Day later in the summer will allow us the opportunity to welcome back many of our alumnae to impart their experiences on our new graduates and incoming freshman class. Our Naval Academy Museum will also open a new exhibit in July focusing on this anniversary.
As superintendent, and as someone who was a student at USNA in the earliest days of women on the yard, I’m extremely proud of what our graduates and our current midshipmen have accomplished and look forward to what they will achieve in the future as their opportunities to serve expand. For women in the Navy and Marine Corps, the future has never been brighter, and the Naval Academy will continue to develop women of character and consequence to lead our Sailors and Marines.