West Point to Have Record Number of Black Female Cadets in 2019 Graduating Class

Thirty-four cadets at West Point, the United States’ military academy, are set to make history this year, as the academy’s graduating class of 2019 boasts more black female cadets than ever before.

While these 34 female cadets are only a small portion of the nearly 1,000 cadets that will graduate this Saturday, they said they are proud to be part of this historic milestone at the academy, the Associated Press reports.

“I just showed myself and those who thought I couldn't do it initially that yes, I can,” senior cadet Stephanie Riley said. “And not just, ‘yes, I can.’ I can show other little girls that yes, you can come to West Point. Yes, you can do something that maybe the rest of your peers aren’t actually doing. And yes, you can be different from the rest of the group.”

The black female cadets, including Riley, recently posed for graduation photos in their gray uniforms, holding their ceremonial sabers — part of a tradition for graduating cadets — and went viral on the internet, illustrating West Point’s growing diversity.

“I was more excited to just take the picture because it means that we’re all graduating and it was great to be there with a lot of my sisters who have been there for me in very tough times during summer training and during the academic year,” senior cadet Gabrielle Young said. “I didn't expect it to have the impact that it did around the country.”

But it hasn’t always been easy for these female cadets.

“It hasn’t always been pretty,” one of the cadets told NBC’s Morgan Radford in an interview.

The cadets had moments where they questioned whether they were worthy of being there. In other instances, the female cadets struggled with being one of few female minority students, or just even one of few women in the room.

“I feel like in some ways that I do have to prove myself a little bit more, prove that I belong here. And even a classmate told me, I think our freshman year, that I only got in because I was a black female,” Young, one of the few in her class chosen for medical school, said.

West Point, which has been and remains to be predominantly white and male, has boosted its efforts to recruit women and blacks after being order to diversify in 2013 by then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno. Changing its marketing approach and opening a diversity office, West Point increased its outreach to broaden its search for more qualified candidates.

According to The Washington Examiner, the academy welcomed its first black superintendent, Lt. Gen. Daryl Williams, last year. In 2017, Simone Askew became West Point’s first black female captain of the Corps of Cadets, the highest student position at the academy.

“We’re beginning to see the fruits of our labors,” director of admissions Col. Deborah McDonald said.

In another milestone, West Point’s graduating class Saturday will include 223 women, the largest number since the first female cadets graduated in 1980. In addition, there will be 110 African Americans graduating from the academy this year, an all-time high and double the number from 2013. The class will also include the largest number of Latino graduates: 88.

“[T]his year’s class will have the highest number of female Hispanic graduates along with graduating our 5,000th female cadet since the first class of women to graduate in 1980,” West Point spokesperson Frank Demaro told CNN.

But this year’s record for black female graduates may not hold, according to Demaro. West Point expects to graduate even more black female cadets next year.

“I don’t think I would trade this experience for anything in the world,” Young said. “I know that I’ve accomplished a lot and I know that I’m prepared for whatever.”