ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND — Throughout its long history, the U.S. Naval Academy has produced prominent leaders, like former President Jimmy Carter and Senator John McCain. The academy prepares young men and women to become officers in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps. But not all of its undergraduate students - known as midshipmen - are American. Dozens are foreign exchange students who return home to serve their countries after graduating.
David Ochy of Panama is one of about 60 foreign exchange students currently studying at the U.S. Naval Academy in historic Annapolis, Maryland.
“Leaving the comfort zone of your country, to come here to a culture and language completely different from your own and adapt, has been a challenge,” said Ochy.
“It opens a cultural horizon so that one understands American culture better, and is more involved in the culture,” said Santiago Gonzalez-Ayer, an exchange student from Spain.
The Naval Academy was founded in 1845 on the grounds of an old fort.
The academy says its mission is to prepare students to serve as officers in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps. It strives to develop competence, character and compassion in its midshipmen.
International program director Tim Disher said the U.S. Navy also benefits by opening up the program to foreign students, especially in a world increasingly connected through technology and social media.
“It used to be, when I graduated in 1981 from the Naval Academy, only the senior officers were the ones that had relationships with their foreign navies or our counterparts," said Disher. "That’s not the case anymore. We’re a smaller navy and our students, even as midshipmen, have the ability to make an impact with our foreign partners. We are creating young ambassadors ...right off the bat, right after they get commissioned."
He said the exchange also strengthens the education of U.S. midshipmen, by enhancing their international exposure and understanding.
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller. One day our students will be operating in the theaters or environments that they’ve explored in the context of their interpersonal relationships here at the Naval Academy with the foreign cadets, and vice versa. It’s important that our allies know exactly how we function or operate as a military,” said Navy Lieutenant Paul Angelo, who graduated from the academy in 2006.
After finishing the exchange program, Gonzalez Ayer plans to return to Spain and become a naval officer.
David Ochy wants to work as an ocean engineer back home.
“I see my future in Panama,” he said.
The hope is they return home richer for the cultural experience they lived and shared with their fellow midshipmen at the academy.