Anne Arundel County

Foreign midshipmen forge international ties

Like her classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Midshipman 1st Class Dagmara Broniatowska learned how to salute, ran the endurance course and memorized the body of American military information, history and quotations known as the Rates.

In her "four years by the bay," as midshipmen sometimes describe their time at the academy, she has studied oceanography, Russian and Arabic, competed with the varsity offshore sailing team and trained aboard a Navy destroyer. She expects to graduate with her classmates next spring.


And that's where they'll part company.

While her fellow graduates receive their commissions and start careers in the Navy or Marine Corps, Broniatowska will return to her native Warsaw, where she'll be expected to serve 12 years in the Polish Navy.


Broniatowska, 23, is one of a small number of foreign nationals sent by their countries to study at the Naval Academy as members of its little-known international midshipmen program. As an increasingly interconnected world makes the U.S. military mission increasingly complex, the program aims to improve understanding among nations.

When a foreign student graduates from Annapolis, program director Tim Disher said, the United States doesn't gain another Navy ensign or a Marine second lieutenant — it gains a relationship with a junior officer in a foreign military who has knowledge of and ties to America.

"The world is getting smaller, and we have fewer ships," he said. "The ocean is more dangerous than it's ever been, with all sorts of challenges, and so we have to work together on the sea."

The long-standing program achieved a pair of milestones this year. In May, Sam Tan Wei Shan of Singapore became the first international midshipman to graduate first in his class. And the 58 international midshipmen at Annapolis this fall are the most in academy history.

The foreign students — some of whom have already been commissioned officers in their home nations — wear the same uniforms, take the same classes, complete the same training, earn the same degree and are subject to the same regulations and discipline as their American classmates.

None of the material studied at Annapolis is classified, Disher said, so there are no national security concerns related to having foreign nationals on campus. During summer training, international midshipmen do not serve aboard submarines or with aviation squadrons.

"It's a long-term investment," said Disher, a 1981 academy graduate. "During the four years here, they've made friends, they understand how we train. And so, as they progress in their career within their respective navies, that continues."

The other service academies — the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. — offer similar programs. Numbers remain small. By law, each may enroll up to 60 foreign nationals at one time.


That means the academies enroll far fewer international students than similarly elite civilian universities. The 58 foreign students at the Naval Academy make up less than 1.4 percent of the 4,400-strong brigade of midshipmen. By contrast, foreign nationals make up more than 10 percent of the undergraduate students at both the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.

To increase the exposure of the American midshipmen to their foreign counterparts, Disher's office also encourages students to take semesters abroad, to participate in exchange cruises with foreign navies, to pursue overseas immersion programs and to travel on faculty-led trips.

The goal, Disher said, is to send 700 midshipmen abroad each year.

The Naval Academy has graduated more than 400 foreign nationals from 70 countries since 1863. Those now at Annapolis come from 32 countries, largely in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc. Georgia and Tunisia have sent four midshipmen each; Lebanon, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have sent three.

More than 100 countries are eligible to nominate candidates. These include such potential U.S. rivals as China and Russia, but Disher said they haven't sent anyone, perhaps because they have robust naval academies of their own.

Countries may nominate candidates through their embassies in Washington; applications are reviewed by the director of admissions, the academy superintendent and, ultimately, the secretary of defense. The foreign governments cover the costs of those who matriculate, at $70,000 per year.


Seyko Seykov arrived in June as one of the first two Bulgarians to attend the academy. He's still adjusting to the weather, the food and the language.

"It's really a new experience for me," said the 20-year-old Seykov, a native of Shumen, near the Black Sea. "I spent most of my life around the city where I was born. Now I'm on the other side of the world. It's still difficult sometimes to express what I'm thinking."

Nonetheless, he prefers it to the Bulgarian naval academy.

"They treat you more carefully here," he said. "They look out for your well-being more than back home."

As Bahaa Joudieh prepared to leave his native Lebanon for Annapolis, his superiors advised him that he would be representing not only himself, but his country.

"Remember that people aren't going to remember you by your name," he was told. "They're going to remember the Lebanese kid."


A third-year student, Joudieh describes the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree at the Naval Academy as a "once-in-a-lifetime chance." Living in the United States, he said, has been "awesome."

It also has been a culture shock.

"Coming from the Middle East, you get fed the news from one perspective," he said. "Coming here, you see the other side of the news. You can make your own opinion."

Joudieh, 21, is a second lieutenant in the Lebanese Navy. At Annapolis, he wears the uniform of a midshipman.

"Even if they're a commissioned officer, they're still treated like a plebe" when they arrive at the academy, Disher said. "They're not afforded any of the rights and privileges of being an officer — which is interesting."

Broniatowska said plebe year was her greatest challenge. Before coming to Annapolis, she had lived in Warsaw and Moscow, spoke Polish, Russian and English, and completed two years of study at the Polish naval academy.


During her first year at Annapolis, she said, "we were very much treated like children. And for me, being two years out of home and free and then going back to being treated like a child, that was pretty hard. Especially given that I'm older than my classmates. I kind of went through it already."

Still, she said, she loves the academy.

"I deal pretty well with academics and sports and time management, so I didn't have a problem with that," she said. The academy is "very professional, compared to my previous school, and I can actually see the goal in what I'm learning here."

And "the friends I found here," she said — "I'm pretty sure I'm going to stay in touch with them for probably ever."

By the numbers

The 58 foreign nationals now at the Naval Academy — the most ever — make up less than 1.4 percent of the 4,400-strong brigade of midshipmen. They come from 32 countries. Countries sending more than one are:


Georgia and Tunisia: 4

Lebanon, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan: 3

Bangladesh, Belize, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Gabon, Maldives, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Philippines and Thailand: 2

Source: U.S. Naval Academy