JACKI LYDEN, host: In 1978, Sandra Stosz was among the first women cadets at the Coast Guard Academy, and some of the men let her know they thought women just couldn't cut it.
Rear Admiral SANDRA STOSZ: And so you just got kind of stubborn and you said like, you know, I'm going to show them that I can do it.
LYDEN: Well, Rear Admiral Stosz returned to the academy this summer as its superintendent, the first woman to ever run a U.S. service academy. And she welcomed a new class that's more a third women, a higher proportion than any of the other academies.
Mark Herz, of member station WSHU, has more.
MARK HERZ: Before the start of the school year at the academy in New London, Connecticut, young men and women report in for their first day of Swab Summer, a sort of pre-freshman boot camp. They need to learn quickly how to stay braced up - head in, chest up, eyes center. And there are some tough, older cadets making sure they get it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Should be very snappy...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sound off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Your eyes are locked that way! Your eyes are...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Get it together, Swab Mello. I'm sick of you looking around...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: ...what cover means even though we've done it a million times...
HERZ: As you can hear, women are some of the toughest instillers of military discipline on the campus beside the Thames River. But for a few ceremonial guns installed among the red-brick Georgian buildings, this could be any other grassy, wooded New England college.
Cadets earn bachelor of science degrees, and commit to five years of service as officers upon graduation. Women are expected to do everything that men do here, and they say that's part of what makes them feel welcome.
Casey Fall is a high school senior from Wisconsin, visiting the academy.
CASEY FALL: Coast Guard is the only military service that women can do any type of job, while all the other ones have like, something specific that women cannot do. And so I think that's a real lure for the women to go to.
HERZ: Cadet Colleen Patton used to be an ocean lifeguard. Part of the lure for her was to again experience the gratitude of people she pulled out of the water. Then there's the adventure. Last year, she was in Panama with a law-enforcement crew.
COLLEEN PATTON: I was on a 378-foot cutter, and we were working the mission of drug-busting and interdicting migrants. So it's pretty serious, and I was only 18 years old.
HERZ: The Coast Guard is small. The Army's more than 10 times as big. There's a familiarity that breeds a sense of family, and an informality underneath all the straight spines.
STOSZ: My office is OK?
STOSZ: Come on in.
HERZ: Superintendent Sandra Stosz's office is a ship-shape affair. There is one thing looking a bit out of place on her desk.
STOSZ: Nail polish.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HERZ: Stosz is a youthful 51, with light hair pinned back in a tight bun. Her gold shoulder boards bear two stars. She's used to being out front. Besides her current posting, she was the first woman to command a military ship on the Great Lakes, and the first woman academy graduate to make admiral.
STOSZ: Ah, I just wanted to be another sailor. I just wanted to be known for my competency and what I can bring to the Coast Guard - not for my gender. But then I realized that I wasn't going to outrun this.
HERZ: And she doesn't feel the need to hide what she calls a nurturing style of leadership. When she was in high school, Sandy Stosz says she was full of innate talent but shy, and lacked confidence.
STOSZ: If I hadn't come into the Coast Guard, where they had really stretched me and had me look deep inside and pull out that passion that resides within, I think I might have just been in a lab somewhere, wearing a white lab coat and just being Sandy.
HERZ: Stosz says she loves helping young women find their passion, and believes the Coast Guard is one of the best places to do that. At the end of the first day of Swab Summer, hundreds of family members said goodbye to their cadets-to-be just after Stosz administered the oath of office to them.
STOSZ: Class of 2015, raise your right hands. Having been appointed the grade of cadet in the United States Coast Guard, do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND MUSIC)
HERZ: On the academy's formal parade field, 291 Swabs stand ramrod straight in dark-blue work uniforms and visored caps. You'd be hard-pressed from the steps of Hamilton Hall, where Superintendent Stosz stood, to pick out the 100 women among them.
For NPR News, I'm Mark Herz in Connecticut.
LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.