Kamala Harris becomes the first woman to deliver a US Naval Academy commencement address

Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the graduation and commission ceremony at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on May 28, 2021.

  • Vice President Harris became the first woman to give a commencement address at the Naval Academy.
  • She told graduates they would be taking “an oath to support our Constitution and defend it against all enemies.”
  • Harris also paid respects to the late Sen. John McCain, a prominent Naval Academy graduate.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the graduates of the United States Naval Academy on Friday, she became the first female commencement speaker in its 175-year-history.

At the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, Harris told the graduates that they would be taking “an oath to support our Constitution and defend it against all enemies.”

“No matter what changes in our world, the charge in this oath is constant,” she emphasized.

Harris spoke of the immense challenges that graduates would face, including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and cybersecurity threats.

She called climate change “a very real threat to our national security” and lauded the graduates for being part of the future for tackling the issue.

“I look at you and I know you are among the experts who will navigate and mitigate this threat,” she said. “You are ocean engineers who will help navigate ships through thinning ice. You are mechanical engineers who will help reinforce sinking bases. You are electrical engineers who will soon help convert solar and wind energy into power, convert solar and wind energy into combat power.”

She told the graduates that they would be critical in securing the country’s infrastructure.

“Foreign adversaries have their sights set on our military technology, our intellectual property, our elections, our critical infrastructure,” she said. “The way I see it, midshipmen, you are those experts on the issue of cybersecurity.”

She added: “We must defend our nation against these threats. And at the same time, we must make advances in things that you’ve been learning, things like quantum computing and artificial intelligence and robotics, and things that will put our nation at a strategic advantage. You will be the ones to do it because the United States military is the best, the bravest, and the most brilliant.”

Kamala Harris
Vice President Harris displays her US Naval Academy jacket.

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Harris also praised the military officers who have helped vaccinate Americans across the country.

The vice president’s speech comes as the Pentagon accelerates the timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which will likely occur in mid-July, up from an earlier projected date of September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

She told the graduates that the September 11, 2001, attack “shaped your entire life, and it shaped our entire nation,” and said that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the fabric of American society.

“If we weren’t clear before, we know now: The world is interconnected,” she said. “Our world is interdependent. And our world is fragile.”

Harris also gave a nod to female graduates only 46 years since Congress mandated that women could be admitted to service academies.

“Just ask any Marine today, would she rather carry 20 pounds of batteries or solar panels, and I am positive, she will tell you a solar panel – and so would he,” she laughingly said.

She then paid respects to the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a graduate of the academy, whom she called “a great and courageous American.”

McCain, who passed away in August 2018, is buried at the US Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis.

“Most people don’t know he wanted to be buried next to his best friend who he met on the yard, Admiral Chuck Larson,” she said. “That is the ultimate example of what I mean, in it together.”

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden gave his first commencement address as commander-in-chief at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.

“No class gets to choose the world into which it graduates, and demands and the challenges you’re going to face in your career are going to look very different than those who walked these halls before you,” he told the graduates. “You chose, as a class motto – ‘We are the future.’ I don’t think you have any idea how profound that assertion is.”

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First Black woman to lead the US Naval Academy’s students says the military still has ‘a lot of room for progress’ on racial issues

sydney barber
US Navy Midshipman Sydney Barber of Lake Forest, Illinois.

  • US Navy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the first Black woman to lead the US Naval Academy as a brigade commander, described the country’s reckoning with racial tensions as an eye-opening experience and said there was still “a lot of room for progress.”
  • “It’s a good thing that we’re opening up the conversation, and it’s a good thing we’re working through initiatives to address the issues,” she told Insider.
  • Of the 1,194 midshipmen enrolled in the academy’s graduating class of 2024, only 78 are Black Americans.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

US Navy Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the first Black woman to lead the US Naval Academy as a brigade commander, described the country’s reckoning with racial tensions as an eye-opening experience and believed there was still “a lot of room for progress.”

Barber, an Illinois native and a senior at the academy, recently became the first Black woman to lead and represent the student body during its 175-year history. The mechanical engineering major is expected to graduate this year and join the Marine Corps as a commissioned officer.

Black Americans make up one of the least-represented races at the academy and US military’s officer corps. Of the 1,194 midshipmen enrolled in the academy’s graduating class of 2024, only 78 are Black Americans.

As a brigade commander for a semester, Barber’s role is to liaise between the roughly 4,000 midshipmen and the commandant of the academy, similar to a class president at a civilian university.

According to Barber, being the brigade commander is a “great opportunity to set the tone for how we develop leaders,” and that in order to help navigate midshipmen to the fleet, leaders have to come to terms with racial disparities in the country.

“The fact of the matter is, here in the military, we’re in the business where we can’t afford to have any discriminatory biases at all,” Barber said. “We can’t afford to have any racism because of the fact that people’s lives are at stake and we need to maximize our potential as a fighting force.”

Following the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, senior military leaders responded to the unrest by opening up a discussion about racial injustices.

US Navy Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, issued a fleet-wide message in June, “about the murder of Mr. George Floyd and the events that we have all watched on TV for the last several nights.”

“We’ve watched what is going on, we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country,” Gilday said in his message. “And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.”

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Sydney Barber in a track and field competition with the US Naval Academy.

Like other military leaders, Gilday launched a task force this year to examine racial injustices ranging from recruitment demographics to the administration of military justice. 

“I’ve been in the Navy for a long time and I’ve had a lot of experiences,” Gilday added. “Something I have never experienced and something I will never experience is that I will never walk in the shoes of a black American or any other minority. I will never know what it feels like when you watch that video of Mr. Floyd’s murder.”

Barber said the ongoing conversation about race was necessary in the Navy, because midshipmen are not necessarily exempt from “unraveling perceptions that maybe we had earlier on, before we rose our right hand … to support and defend the Constitution.”

“For me, as a leader, setting a tone with that attitude is going to make all the difference for how we continue to operate as a force generations down the line,” Barber said.

“I think we’re getting there. This was a very eye-opening and catalytic year for a number of reasons. And the fact is that some of these issues in our country … are just not discussed,” she added. “They are always there. And they are always just as harmful as they were back when we had issues like extreme segregation.”

“I think that it’s a good thing that we’re opening up the conversation, and it’s a good thing we’re working through initiatives to address the issues.”

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