Last year, William & Mary became the first university in the United States to have a detachment of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. The detachment is part of the Coast Guard Auxiliary's Flotilla 67 in Williamsburg. The Auxiliary is the uniformed, volunteer component of the Coast Guard.
Traditionally, the Coast Guard Auxiliary has been composed of men and women retired from service or those who work part-time jobs. Though students will wear the blue uniform as part of what they describe as "the premier uniformed civilian maritime force," the program is by no means a boot camp. Unlike the Army ROTC, it's not a commissioning program, and students will never be deployed for military and law enforcement action. However, the program does seek to prepare students to serve as officers in the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary, if that is something they wish to pursue.
According to Detachment Commander Emily Johnson ('09), getting that fact straight was a problem as they were trying to set the program up, and it still surprises students as they learn more about the program.
"I still have to explain that I'm not interested in a military career and have no intention to join the (active-duty) Coast Guard," Johnson said. "At its heart, it's a program that welcomes anyone who is interested in volunteering and gaining leadership abilities. There's a diverse range of interests within the detachment."
They perform many of the same services as the Coast Guard, including marine safety and environmental protection, but they do not engage in military action or law enforcement. Most recently, several of the members have started training to serve as vessel examiners. Once qualified, they will volunteer their time to ensure that civilian boats in the area have the correct amount of life-saving equipment, which saves time for both the active members of the Coast Guard and civilians.
Johnson will be the first, and only, member of the detachment to graduate in May, which poses both a challenge and opportunity. Since this is a first for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, the graduation event has been planned in its entirety by Detachment Members and senior officers from the local area. As the first collegiate detachment, all subsequent detachments will follow the guidelines they put in place, not only for the graduation ceremony, but for any and all programs they develop.
"Everything we're doing is getting written down in the manual that hopefully, once it gets the OK from all the appropriate people, will get published as the guide for all subsequent detachments," Johnson explained.
Johnson's role as detachment commander places her at the head of the growing organization, just below Andrew Welch ('07), the detachment leader and program director. Johnson is responsible for the daily operations of the unit as well as the conduct and progress of the members of the detachment. Welch, however, has the great task of ensuring the program's success. As a leadership and management instructor, coach and advisor he wears many hats, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's a great opportunity to develop unparalleled leadership and operational skills through a blend of classroom and real life work," Welch said. He cites meeting interesting people and being part of the "Coast Guard family," as two other benefits of joining the program.
"[You have] others who really watch out for you and are committed to your success, whether active duty, reserve, or auxiliary, the Coast Guard is a team, and we all serve the same public," he said.
Welch joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary shortly after graduating from William & Mary in 2007 hoping to serve the country and community.
"An aspiration of most of us at William & Mary, I think," he said.
He served as a communications services and public affairs officer before taking the position as detachment leader. Away from the detachment, he is in training for future assignments with the Marine Safety and Environmental Protection operational community.
Both Welch and Johnson cite the many opportunities the Coast Guard Auxiliary presents for students. As volunteers, they're able to work in marine safety, environmental protection, public policy and foreign service. In fact, many members of the Auxiliary choose to serve as interpreters on vessels.
While the detachment aims to provide students with skills that will help them succeed in whatever career path they choose, it's already apparent that the program has helped them grow as individuals and leaders, too.
"There is nothing like seeing a group of students that you helped teach make it through something," Welch said. "Nothing like seeing them go from knowing practically nothing about the Coast Guard and our missions, to later seeing them in uniform, teaching students that are even newer to program, or getting the students to the point where they are running their own unit. It's awesome."