Learn About Leadership and Teamwork From Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz, the First Female Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy

Oct 20, 2021

By Megan Driscoll

Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy

U.S. Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz gives a speech Friday, June 3, 2011, during a change-of-command ceremony at the academy in New London, Conn. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr., presided over the ceremony, which installed Stosz as the first female superintendent at any of the U.S. service academies. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley.

Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz hails originally from Ellicott City, Maryland. She entered the Coast Guard Academy straight out of high school, and during her 33 years of distinguished service has broken many barriers for women. Adm. Stosz was the first woman to serve as military aide to the Secretary of Transportation, the first female to command a cutter on the Great Lakes and the first female graduate of the Coast Guard Academy to achieve flag officer rank. Now she's broken through another glass ceiling: Adm. Stosz is leading the Coast Guard Academy as the first female superintendent of any of the military service academies. You've been in the Coast Guard for 30 years. How did you become interested in military service and what inspired you to join the Coast Guard?

Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz: It was 1976 when Congress changed the law and required all the service academies to admit women, and the Coast Guard was the first federal armed service academy to comply with that law. In fact, we had started preparing a couple years in advance, and we're pretty proud of the fact that we took the lead on admitting women and have been leading the way ever since.

I was a junior in high school then and I saw an article about it in The Baltimore Sun. I'd never sailed and nobody in my family had ever sailed or been in the military, but it appealed to my sense of adventure. Originally I looked into the Naval Academy, but my high school guidance counselor told me there was a Coast Guard and they also had an academy. Ultimately, I ended up applying to both the Naval and Coast Guard Academies.

I wanted to do more than just be in an office job. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, and the idea of service to my country appealed to me. I was also thrilled at the chance to have this opportunity that hadn't existed for women until right when I came of age to start my college education. And there was the practical side - I thought, 'Wow this is a free education scholarship.'

The reason I picked the Coast Guard over the Navy is that they got back to me more quickly because they have a direct admit process, so I just sent my acceptance back to the academy that had reached out to me and accepted me first. What did you major in at the Coast Guard Academy?

SS: I majored in government. We're a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) school with eight majors. Six of them are focused on science and engineering and the other two are management and government. However, because we're a STEM school, these programs still have a science-heavy curriculum that results in a Bachelor of Science (B.S.), not a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.).

I picked government because I've always been interested in how everything fits together from a historical standpoint and how you can apply those ideas to the future. However, the Coast Guard Academy turned out to be a perfect fit for me because I was not particularly analytical previously. By including calculus and physics and chemistry in my education, I gained a structured systems approach to my thinking and was able to apply a more logical, critical thinking competency to my humanities-focused nature. What are the most significant improvements you have seen for women in the Coast Guard during your career? In what spaces do you feel there is still room for improvement?

SS: I think some of the most significant improvements for women during the 33 years that I've been associated with the Coast Guard have been in access and opportunity. When I first came into the Coast Guard they had opened up every mission area and every unit (ships, aircrafts, boat stations) to women, but some of them just couldn't accept women because they weren't configured for it. Today, there are many more units that are available to women.

But this is also the area in which we still need the most improvement. Some of our ships are still in service from when I first came in over 30 years ago, and those older ships don't have adequate accommodations for women to be able to go out and participate in the missions and career opportunities that they need to be able to advance in the Coast Guard, to achieve their full potential and rise to the top of the organization like I was able to do. So we need to have support for new ships in our budget requests.

We are building new national security cutters, which are the largest of the Coast Guard Ships, and these will accommodate women with separate berthing areas and restroom facilities (we call them heads). What have you learned about educational leadership during your very distinguished career?

SS: The Coast Guard Academy is developing and graduating leaders of character who are going to selflessly serve their nation and the Coast Guard. And I think that the leadership and character building laboratories we have here, which take the form of sailing and ship handling opportunities, were the most important experiences in my career to help me get me to the position that I'm in today.

Every cadet that comes to the Coast Guard Academy gets to build character out there on the water, working as a team and being tested as an individual against nature. Through the sailing continuum, they learn things about leadership and professional mariner expertise that you can only get at a place like the Coast Guard Academy. As you noted above, the Coast Guard has the best record of all of the service academies in terms of equal access for women, and it also has the highest percentage of female cadets. What do you think attracts women to the Coast Guard and what lessons do you think that the other service academies could learn from the Coast Guard in terms of offering a positive environment for female recruits?

SS: From my personal perspective - not speaking for the Coast Guard here - I believe this comes from the Coast Guard's mission and roles and what we do for America. We have a very unique role - we're a federal service academy and we do national defense and homeland security, as well as law enforcement, marine environmental protection, humanitarian missions and search and rescue.

All of that translates to providing safety, security and stewardship for the American people. We protect people who are using the sea - like fishermen and recreational boaters. We protect America from threats that can be transported by the sea, and we protect the sea itself through our environmental programs and our fisheries enforcement.

I think our broad range of roles, missions and values appeals to a wide spectrum of people, and I think there's a lot in that formula that appeals to women. Part of what really sells us is our unique mission, and there's not much the other academies can learn from that aspect.

The second element of why we're so attractive to women is that we have always, from day one, opened our doors to women and provided our women with equal opportunity to serve. We've cultivated an atmosphere and climate of inclusion by including our women in every mission that we had from the first day they became members of our cadet corps. That culture has followed me from the time I came into the Coast Guard Academy to now 33 years later. So my appointment as the first female superintendent is really just a natural progression. The Coast Guard Academy is consistently ranked among the top colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. What do you think distinguishes the Academy academically?

SS: Hands-on learning. I was just this morning over in one of our academic buildings that hosts our shipboard simulator, which includes a whole ship simulation where you are simulating standing on a bridge of a vessel with a team. When you combine this with experiences like the sailing continuum, you see that our young people are getting a perfect blend of professional development to complement their classroom academic educations.

Our students sit in the classroom and learn about a subject, and then get to go out and experience the practical application of those ideas. They go into a simulator and work as a team, then walk down to the waterfront, get in a boat and practice their seamanship.

I think that's really what sets us apart, the ability to marry the professional mariner development with the academic curriculum. And then when you add the character and leadership development that we have on top of it, that full package deal is what sets us apart from other institutions of higher education. What advice would you give to a young woman today who is thinking about applying to the Coast Guard Academy?

SS: I could talk for a long time about advice for young women who want to pursue a career in the Coast Guard, but the bottom line is that they need to work hard and persevere. What I tell any young cadet or young person aspiring to be a cadet is: 'Hard work and perseverance are two qualities that will carry you far.'

It's a very simple, but effective, recipe for success. Admissions to the Coast Guard Academy are downright competitive. We take the best young people from society and are lucky to be able to be very selective. An applicant has to earn good grades, but also be involved in many things besides academics - they have to volunteer, be captain of a sports team, lead a community service effort, etc. Ultimately, they need to be well-rounded, smart, brave, motivated, dedicated and all about the team.

They also need to demonstrate a selflessness that indicates the core values we're looking for - selfless service to their nation and team spirit. To get there, they need to work hard, and they need to persevere because life will hand us failures and there are times we'll come up short, but it's still important to see things through to the end and fully complete what you start.

So hard work and perseverance are two loaded words, but together they form a recipe for success. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about the Coast Guard Academy and your groundbreaking new position there.

SS: The Coast Guard Academy offers young men and women of character who want to serve their country and humanity a free, world class education with guaranteed follow-on employment as leaders in an honorable profession. Our academic year is complemented by summer programs that get our cadets out into the operational Coast Guard - they sail aboard the Coast Guard Barque Eagle, America's largest tall ship, they deploy aboard a variety of Coast Guard cutters, they serve ashore at our sector units that conduct small boat operations and port security and they pursue a variety of professional development and internship programs.

The Coast Guard Academy is highly selective, but we are trying to expand our outreach - there are many people who have never heard of the Coast Guard or its Academy. I hope that as the first female superintendent I can raise the visibility of the Academy. We want to reach out and harness the very best people from the diverse richness of American society, and getting the word out on that and attracting the best young people from across our great country is something we're really working hard to do.

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