The U.S. Coast Guard Academy Graduates its First Class of GEOINT-Certified Cadets

The academy’s recent USGIF accreditation is creating inroads for graduates

Since 1876, students at the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) in New London, Conn., have adhered to the “Honor Concept,” which states, “Who lives here reveres honor, honors duty.” One of the smallest of the five U.S. service academies, the USCGA welcomes about 300 students—called cadets, since they are officers in training—to the Academy each year.

Cadets in the four-year program have long been able to choose from several majors, such as marine and environmental sciences (MES), operations research and computer analysis, and naval architecture and marine engineering. But it wasn’t until late last year that cadets could graduate with a certificate in geospatial intelligence (GEOINT).

On December 21, 2021, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) announced that it had accredited the USCGA’s Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence, becoming the 20th program to receive accreditation since USGIF began to accredit programs in 2008.

This USGIF accreditation recognizes that the USCGA GEOINT certificate program complies with the highest standards for GEOINT curriculum, faculty expertise, novel research approaches, and availability of adequate resources for state-of-the-art teaching and learning.

“We sought accreditation because we recognize it as a means for program improvement and a means for achieving program excellence,” said Lucy S. Vlietstra, Ph.D., Professor of Marine Science and GEOINT Certificate Program Chair. “It was external validation of the team’s effort to look closely at our program, learn from other accredited institutions, reinforce existing strengths, and implement improvements.”

Beyond the validation, the USCGA also sought USGIF accreditation to deliver a better education to its cadets.

“We’ve got a very tech-savvy student body. They love data, tech, graphs, and statistics,” said Dr. Richard Zuczek, Dean of the School of Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities. “Rather than just teaching them about how to use data, we thought, let’s teach them where to find it, how to gather it and analyze it. Rather than going to the store to buy a fish, let’s start fishing.”

The USCGA has offered classes in geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and spatial data analysis within the MES major for years, so accrediting an actual GEOINT certificate program was the natural next step, Dr. Vlietstra said.

“We’ve watched the evolution of this program go from students learning about GIS to students learning about its applications in the broader field of GEOINT, and we wanted to make sure we were preparing students to work in a range of professional settings,” she said. “Accreditation means we’re offering a program that meets a certain standard and making it  the best it can be for our cadets.”

Now, the GEOINT certificate program spans two and half academic years—beginning in sophomore year and culminating with a capstone presentation before graduating.

The First First-Class

Ensign (ENS) Kaleigh O’Connor, from Mechanicsburg, Penn., graduated from the USCGA in May with a degree in MES, with a focus on physical oceanography and GEOINT.

ENS O’Connor, who presented a poster at the GEOINT Symposium in St. Louis last year, was among the first class of cadets to receive the GEOINT certificate. In fact, the accreditation process was taking place while she was making her way through her major.

“All of our professors were talking about it and anticipating the accreditation,” she said. “I was really excited to have my program validated.”

ENS O’Connor, whose capstone was on oil drifts, was one of 10 cadets to graduate with the GEOINT certificate in 2022. Her first assignment was to spend two months in Pensacola, Fla., doing search and rescue, migrant interdiction, and drug interdiction.

Creating Inroads

Now in her final year at the USCGA, first-class cadet Alyssa Burns, from Pearland, Texas, wasn’t familiar with USGIF until a representative from the organization spoke to her class about accreditation.

“During my remote-sensing class, they talked to us about the program and what opportunities it could unlock for us going into the Coast Guard after graduation and the civilian workforce after that,” said Burns, who is also majoring in MES with a focus on physical oceanography and GEOINT.

After graduation, cadets receive commissions as Ensigns in the U.S. Coast Guard, where they serve a minimum of five years on active duty. Entering that active duty with a certificate in GEOINT could open doors for them depending on the mission.

“When a graduate gets there, somebody’s going to notice that this person has a GEOINT focus. Maybe they’ll enter the intelligence center because of it, or they’ll work on something with a particular GEOINT focus,” Dr. Zuczek said. “It can definitely help create some inroads.”

The real benefit to the accredited GEOINT certificate program, however, will come a little later, he said.

“As they move through their career, this certificate is going to allow access, and they’re going to be able to build on it in many ways,” Dr. Zuczek said. “It’s going to start small. No one is guaranteed a job right away because of it, but I think it’s going to magnify itself pretty quickly.”

Growing a Faculty

Over the next few years, as the program evolves and other departments integrate new certificates, Dr. Zuczek expects the USCGA to start offering new majors, like GEOINT, to cadets. He also expects that recruiting experienced professors to teach it may become more difficult.

“As [the program] becomes more recognized, it could be hard for us to attract teaching talent,” he said.

The answer? Grow your own faculty, Dr. Zuczek said.

“One of the reasons we’re trying to grow cadets who have an interest and a background in GEOINT is that they can come back as teachers,” he said. “It’s hard for us to compete with industry, so we have to sort of grow our own instructors.”

Fortunately, the call to serve and honor the Coast Guard runs deep. Despite having plans to eventually enter the civilian workforce, both ENS O’Connor and Burns hope to first do their time with the Coast Guard, however long that takes.

Since graduation, ENS O’Connor has already heard from other students about the growing interest in the GEOINT certificate program.

“I think it has attracted quite a few people,” she said. “I’m happy to have been a part of the class that inspired that.”

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