September 9, 2015 — Perched on the mast high above the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Barque Eagle, Sydney Johnson looked out in awe as shooting stars zipped through the night sky.
“It was just amazing,” the Suffolk, Virginia-native recalled about his first experience at sea. “I just looked up and I could see all the stars in the sky.”
Johnson was underway on ‘America’s Tall Ship’ this past summer for a portion of “Swab Summer,” the seven-week indoctrination period for “swabs,” or incoming first-year cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
The Academy, the training grounds for future Coast Guard officers, is highly selective. It offers a four-year Bachelor of Science degree program with a full scholarship for each cadet. More than 2,000 applicants are evaluated each year; the entering class size is around 240 people, according to Coast Guard Admissions.
Johnson demonstrated exceptional qualities as a swab, with cadet summer leadership choosing him as the top-performer who most embodied the training values taught to him since reporting-in day.
At a ceremony in Mystic, Connecticut, in July, Johnson was presented the Class of 2019 flag.
“Thank you Swab Johnson for your performance, for your teamwork and for your leadership within your class,” Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. James E. Rendon said at the event. “Keep up the great work.”
Johnson said he chose the Academy because of its Academy Introduction Mission, or AIM, program, which offers students entering their senior year of high school a one-week glimpse into the rigors and traditions of the military and Academy life.
At first he wondered why he was in the AIM program, but then it clicked.
“Even today, I still keep in contact with some of the people from AIM,” he said. “I really liked the camaraderie (and) everybody coming together, like we’re basically a family.”
He thought “this place is for me” and the Coast Guard became a top choice for him. While he was accepted and received scholarships elsewhere, “after the AIM program, I couldn’t see myself at any other college,” he said.
Johnson went to prep school and was on the track team and in the marching band in high school. A quote from his band director sticks with him: ‘Excellence is a standard, not the goal.’
In order to be a good leader, you have to be a good follower first, Johnson said.
He credits his parents, both Air Force veterans, for helping guide him. They were the ones who encouraged him to look into the AIM program.
“They’ve always been supportive honestly of whatever I do, and when they saw I wanted to go into the Coast Guard, they said ‘alright, we’re with you all the way,’” he said.
Johnson, who took part in the Coast Guard Academy Scholars Program and hopes to make a career out of the service, added, “Honestly I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”