June 18 marks the 25th anniversary of the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative Program. CSPI is a fully funded scholarship program open to students of all races and ethnicities, which may pay up to two academic years of college tuition and books. While in the program, officer trainees are provided with valuable leadership, management, law enforcement, navigation and marine science skills and professional development training. Upon graduation from college, officer trainees attend Officer Candidate School and are commissioned as ensigns in the Coast Guard. In honor of this milestone, we highlight one of the program’s initial candidates, Capt. Robert Smith.
While a junior at West Virginia State College in 1989, Capt. Robert Smith found an advertisement slipped under his dorm room door. It promised him $1,100 in monthly pay, free medical and dental care, 30 days paid vacation a year, paid tuition and books and, once completed, a starting salary of more than $20,000.
He thought it was too good to be true and ignored it, thinking there must be a catch.
But there wasn’t a catch. The advertisement was for the Minority Officer Recruitment Effort, a program started by the Coast Guard in 1989 as an initiative to diversify the officer corps. This program was developed in conjunction with an executive order to increase the participation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in federally sponsored programs.
Smith, an Army ROTC cadet at the time, soon learned about the program when a Coast Guard recruiter set up a booth in the student union where he worked.
“Every day, he would sit there with people ignoring him,” Smith remembers. Finally, the recruiter approached Smith. “Why aren’t you people jumping all over this amazing opportunity?” he asked.
When Smith expressed their skepticism with the ad, the recruiter changed his tactics.
“He begged me to fill out the information card,” said Smith. “He said his chief didn’t believe he was actually there every day.”
Smith obliged, and was eventually selected for the program. Even so, he didn’t have plans on following through. But, when a chief petty officer called and described the opportunity to Smith’s mother, his plans suddenly changed.
Two weeks later, Smith found himself on Governor’s Island, New York, swearing into the Coast Guard in front of Rear Adm. George Passmore. Unable to stop crying, his mother beamed with pride. And just a few hours later, Smith boarded a train bound for Cape May, N.J.
Prior to Smith’s boot camp class, there were only two candidates in the MORE program. It was at boot camp that Smith received his first leadership opportunity. “I served as the recruit coordinator for the entire eight weeks,” Smith remembers. “We won most of the pennants.”
After completing a second summer indoctrination program at Reserve Training Center Yorktown the following year, Smith went on to attend Officer Candidate School and eventually earned his commission as an ensign.
Two year later, Smith was stationed at that same training center, when he overheard several members commenting about the Coast Guard’s unfair recruiting and hosting of all-black Officer Candidate School classes.
“This was not my first or last time needing to explain the misunderstood program,” said Smith. “There were times when I felt like I should not even mention that I was a MORE graduate.”
Despite the challenges, Smith stuck with it.
Now known as the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative, the program has evolved over the years to include all presidentially designated minority servicing institutions, including colleges and universities in Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“In spite of the challenges, the Coast Guard demonstrated a commitment to this program,” said Smith. “Our leaders recognized a long time ago how effective this program could be in accomplishing it’s intended objective.”
And accomplish them it did. As one of the original MORE initiates, he is one of five to make the rank of captain.
So, looking back, was the program “too good to be true?”
“Good, it is,” said Smith, “but I am proof that it is true.”
Visit the Coast Guard’s recruiting webpage for more about the Coast Guard’s CSPI program.