Female-Bonding at the Naval Academy: Thirteen African-American Women. Rise from Plebe Ashes to Become Members of the Class of '95
by Dianne Williams Hayes
ANNAPOLIS, MD -- The naval cadet sits with two long braids neatly tucked at the back of her head.
Stephanie Mitchell-Smith is swapping experiences with a small group of African-American women attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
She is one of only 13 African-American women who will be graduating on May 31 in a class of 900. The academy is still considered a "man's world" -- if only because of the overwhelming male-to-female ratio. The rigid structure and discipline of the military academy is evident as the women meticulously adjust their stark white uniforms and sit poised and confident. It is obvious that they feel that they are a part of something special.
On this breezy day, Mitchell-Smith and four other women -- three seniors and a sophomore -- are gathered in a small room taking a moment to reflect on the experiences that helped to create the strong bond that they now share.
What the academy has meant for her and other women is an opportunity to compete on an equal footing with their male counterparts.
As some military academies throughout the country struggle with the concept of opening their doors to women (see accompanying story), the Naval Academy boasts a 20-year history of coed education. But even with two decades of acceptance, the number of women midshipmen and professors is still lower than some would like.
According to the most recent figures released by the academy, there are 37 African-American women midshipmen, and three African-American women who teach at the institution. Out of the 4,041 midshipmen, 529 are women. The many-hued color spectrum of cadets of both sexes represented at the academy include: 282 African Americans, 256 Hispanics, 175 Asians and 36 Native Americans.
The Blue Horizon
Mitchell-Smith, 22, who uses both of her parents' last names, said that Spelman College was in equal contention with the Naval Academy as the place where she most wanted to go to pursue her higher education goals. The deciding factor was her long-held passion to pilot an airplane -- to fly.
After graduation, her dream will be realized as she takes off for flight school to become a navigator.
"Over the last five years, I can see that I've grown in terms of my mental toughness," Mitchell-Smith said. "I'm from Atlanta, where I never really felt like a minority [because of its majority Black population]. I never felt like a minority [until] plebe summer."
The 16 African-American women, including Mitchell-Smith, who, in 1991, entered the deliberately grueling sevenweek plebe summer induction were separated from one another and placed in different companies. The rigorous regimen to develop mental and physical endurance was compounded by a doubled sense of isolation -- as a woman and a minority.
A Mitchell-Smith classmate, 21-year-old Angel Dawkins, said her introduction to the academy was a day she will never forget.
"The first day of induction was my birthday," Dawkins said. "It was pretty tough. The 13 of us who made it in my class [of the original 16] have formed a close bond. It helps to have people around that you can relate to. It's hard being a female, and even harder being an African American. You're even more of a minority than you realized."
After graduation, Dawkins will report for a summer assignment in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The future naval pilot said she has found refuge in a "sea of males" through support from other women who frequently find themselves the only female in a class.
"I make the most of it," said Mitchell-Smith. "The professor definitely knows who I am. Instructors are concerned about how you will make it through their course. At some colleges, you're in a lecture hall with 300 people. I think we benefit a lot from the contact we have with the instructors and, those from the outside that are brought in like [noted African-American science scholar] Dr. …