Since coming to the Coast Guard Academy, I had my eyes set on going on exchange. Finally, 3/c year, second semester, thirty other cadets and I were allowed to apply for this amazing opportunity! I was a nervous wreck placing my application in as I wanted to be afforded the opportunity to go to the Air Force Academy! I walked into my interview, channeling my inner Avatar Aang, ready to engage with the officers who sat on the other side of the table. The interview flew by and I left knowing I had put my all into the interview, and the memorandum, and the ball was in the court of the officers left to decide which cadets to send on exchange. Two months later had me begging to know what my next semester would look like and finally, the results came out, and so did my nerves because Fall Semester of 2/c year, I would be at a completely different school with only the other five coasties who came with me.
In the last days of July, I packed up all my belongings (which somehow filled five gray bins, and two trunks), and threw my five seabags onto a plane and flew to Albuquerque with another Coastie, 2/c Maddy Mee. I felt very conflicted as we were driving up to the Air Force Academy. As the plateaus and mesas of the American Southwest flew by, the fact that we would be spending the next 5 months across the country, in an unfamiliar school sunk in, and I felt thrilled and scared of what was to come. However, I should not have feared anything because going on Exchange to the Air Force Academy was one of the highlights of my cadet career, here at the Coast Guard Academy, and I hope that as many other people as possible will get to have the opportunity to go on exchange.
The day Maddy and I pulled through the gates of USAFA, we were greeted by an imposing mountain range and an expansive base, 18000 acres to be exact. My cadet sponsor then greeted us and helped me bring my entire room worth of belongings from the ground floor to the sixth floor of Sijan Hall which was where I stayed during my time on exchange. I arrived at Squadron 24 (the equivalent of a Company at CGA) with my lungs heaving because Colorado Springs is seven thousand feet in altitude, eyes wide open as I took in all the color murals plastered on all the walls of Sijan Hall. After dropping my belongings off in my room, I went down a floor found my sister who is currently a 4/c or a “Doolie” and we hugged each other after not having seen one another for an entire summer. My sister was one of the reasons why I wanted to go on exchange, and I made every effort to hang out with her while I was at USAFA. Then, another Coast Guard Academy cadet, 2/c Ryan Younes and I stepped out onto the Terrazzo, or “T-zo”, USAFA’s huge quad that is the center of the cadet area and walked past doolies running on marble “strips” while greeting upper classmen, and went to eat dinner at “Mitches”, or the equivalent of their dinning hall. Ryan and I sat down at a random table like we do at CGA and immediately get yelled at by a “Mitches worker” for sitting in the wrong place, and that for Ryan and I was the first reminder that we were no longer at USCGA but like fish out of water, at the United States Air Force Academy.
The first month at USAFA was eye opening and was a period of… shall I say, exploration and discovery. I tried out for the climbing team, began using USAFA’s amazing climbing gym, hiked up Eagle’s Peak with the Doolies at 0400, participated in training sessions with the Squad doing Murph’s in my Operational Dress Uniforms and Composite Toe Boots while everyone else were in their tactical brown boots, rushed to class in Fairchild Hall, their massive academic building, and went out every weekend to take advantage of all the fantastic hiking and outdoor activities there!
Academically, USAFA was different from the Coast Guard Academy in that their academic year is 2 weeks longer than CGA. They also did not have lab periods and so despite taking 18.5 credit hours, I was out after lunch every day. I took Chinese 1, and I will never forget how surprised all the Doolies looked when I walked into my Chinese class and sat down a single blue uniform, in a sea of camo. Every week the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department would make Jalapeno popcorn and gas up the entire department hallway, which I would grab and hunker down in the ECE study lounge and finish my homework. Finally, while usual exchangers all get to do Jump, the parachuting program offered at USAFA, we did not get to do that because of COVID. However, I participated in USAFA’s Powered Flight program, where the instructor ran you through different simulators before you are saddled up into a single propellor plane and given the controls even though I had never touched any of the controls in the cockpit ever. It was an exhilarating experience and one that has opened my eyes to aviation in the Coast Guard.
On the weekends, my friends and I would go hiking, white water rafting and camping. The highlights from the beginning of the semester included going white water rafting, hiking various 14,000-foot mountains, and going climbing outdoors at the Cragg. The weekend 2/c Younes and I hiked Kit Carson and Challenger Point, two 14ers in the region, I was impressed by the beauty of Colorado despite not being able to breath at any point of the hike. We hiked for 2 days, starting the hike, the first day at 1900 in the pitch black. We then went to bed and then woke up to the sound of a deer gnawing on my helmet and set forth to conquer, or get conquered, by the mountains. Among the little rabbit like Pika’s and the violent winds along the ridge, Ryan and I made it to the to though at various times I swore that I would have to get airlifted off the mountain (although, at that altitude, it is uncertain whether or not a helicopter would be able to generate enough lift to maintain flight). On the way down, Ryan decided to switch from his roommate’s boots to his crocs and we proceeded to FLY down the mountain at break-neck speeds and arrived at the car overjoyed to get off our feet. However, the story does not end there. The following day, Ryan and I met up with friends at the Great Sand Dunes National Park to go sand boarding. In the process of sand boarding down a massive dune, one of the crew somehow managed to faceplant in the sand and give herself a concussion. Only in Colorado…