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Home Family Superintendent Smedberg's Grand Idea—Sponsoring Midshipmen

Superintendent Smedberg’s Grand Idea—Sponsoring Midshipmen

Pairing midshipmen with local families gives them a chance to build relationships in the community and a place to relax off the yard.

When Rear Admiral William R. Smedberg III was named Superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1956, he brought firsthand knowledge of the midshipman experience to the position.

Like all mids, Smedberg had faced the Academy’s physical and academic demands, traveled up and down the Severn River countless times, and rooted for his peers to beat Army before his graduation and commissioning in 1926.

When he returned to the yard 30 years later, there was one aspect of the midshipman experience that Superintendent Smedberg wanted to improve upon: life off the yard.

Smedberg had enjoyed using his liberty (time granted for mids to spend off campus) in all that early 1920s downtown Annapolis had to offer.

But he envisioned a broader off-campus life that not only included more hours of liberty but also more opportunities for interaction with the residents of Annapolis. Thus, the USNA Sponsor Program was born.

Sponsor Program 101

When Smedberg created the Sponsor Program 63 years ago it consisted of just a handful of faculty members providing just a handful of midshipmen a private home to escape to for a few hours of their Saturday or Sunday leave. Now the program boasts over 2,500 single or family sponsors—from first-timers to those who’ve sponsored for many decades—offering their home and time to the approximately 1,200 plebes (first-year midshipmen) who arrive at the Academy each year.

Given this supply, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of sponsors continue the relationship with “their” mids throughout the midshipman’s four years at the Academy, it’s no wonder that Rose Clark, USNA Sponsor Program Director, can happily report that virtually every midshipman who wants a home to visit on any given weekend has one (or perhaps more than one, as mids often end up congregating at the home of a friend’s official sponsor).

The main task for Clark, who has served in her matchmaking role since 2004, is to assign as many plebes as possible to sponsors with whom they’ll feel comfortable and forge relationships that last four—or often many more—years.

With just five weeks to do so each summer, Clark begins the process on July 15. She starts by weeding out any potential sponsors who don’t meet the Program’s minimum requirements—passing a background check, living within 45 miles of the Academy Chapel’s dome, and writing a compelling statement of interest.

This usually excludes very few applicants, however, so Clark relies heavily on a substantial amount of background information provided by both plebes and sponsors to make her high-quality matches.

For starters, the sponsor application gives applicants the opportunity to request a specific plebe, for example a family friend’s child or perhaps even one’s own child. Next the application covers virtually everything that you might want to know if given the opportunity to pick your family—or your kid—such as:

Is/was the sponsor in the military? What does he/she and his/her spouse do? Does the sponsor’s home have kids? Pets? Allow smoking? What gender, home state, military background, and varsity sport affiliation would the sponsor prefer in a mid? What are the sponsor’s interests in the areas of sports, crafts/hobbies, and music, and miscellaneous others, from movies to museums?

Once Clark has collected and analyzed the answers to these questions and plebes’ corresponding answers, she notifies new sponsors of whether or not they’ve been accepted into the program in late July, then delivers Sponsor Training to all new sponsors and, after making her 1,200 matches, notifies both parties of their assignments before the annual USNA-hosted reception in Alumni Hall in early August.

Clark’s goal with each match is a sponsor (who is very importantly not a parent or an adult within a mid’s chain of command), who can offer moral support and friendship, a friendly place to get away from the Yard, hands-on encouragement with studies, sports, and career decisions to a young adult who’s going through a unique college experience. In turn, the program gives sponsors the opportunity to be part of the USNA family, learn more about the military lifestyle, and support those who will defend our country.

“My overarching goal is for both mids and sponsors to look to one another as family,”says Clark. If the following three matches are even close to the norm, it’s clear that Clark is on the right track.

Three Exemplary Matches

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Judy Buddensick moved to Annapolis in 1998 and requested her first plebe, Kate, in 1999. Buddensick and Kate, whose brother happened to be Judy’s nephew’s lifelong best friend, already thought of each other as what Buddensick affectionately calls “FRAM-ily,” given that they’d spent many holidays and family dinners together back in New York City. Kate now had a home away from home, and with their great relationship as a starting point, Buddensick has continued to sponsor mids each year. She proudly displays a Wall of Fame in her home, filled with photos of all of her mids as proof of just how close she has become with each and every member of what she and her mids call each other, the “Fambam.”

Her images and fond memories include many musically inclined members of the Fambam holding impromptu concerts in her living room; dozens of late-night Netflix binges and day-long holiday feasts; spring break travels to Thailand and Belize; visits to sponsor sons’ families in Jamaica and Texas. There have also been plenty of mini-reunions at weddings; and, most memorably, attending the 2009 Marine Corps Ball in Las Vegas with a sponsor son who later lost his life in a helicopter crash in 2015, and who Buddensick considers both a hero and the guardian angel of her family.

“My life has definitely been enriched by these fantastic young people and their families,” says Buddensick. “Having a house full of mids from all over the U.S. and the world has given all of us a better perspective and worldview, and our conversations and experiences have made us family for life.”

This sentiment is shared by Bill Hebert, USNA class of 1982, and the mids he has sponsored as well. When Hebert was as a plebe in 1978, he had a great experience with two sponsor families, first, with a Navy Lieutenant and his wife, who were fellow native Louisianans, and second a Marine Corps Captain and his wife. He knew that he wanted to participate when he moved back to Annapolis in 2015.

“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of these men and women, who are all going through an extremely stressful 4-year curriculum and military training experience, and to also stay close to the heartbeat of the Academy,” says Hebert.

Whether providing a listening ear, a hug and words of encouragement, or firsthand advice based on his time at the Academy and in the Navy, Hebert has provided emotional support and life guidance to his mids—Chris, Chip, Lucas, and Amaris—amid poolside cookouts, and regular Sunday morning pancake breakfasts.

45351658 10212892369687909 6488048752060792832 n“As a midshipman at the Academy your weeks are long, stressful, and tiresome. You spend so much time working hard to keep up with the Academy’s academic, physical, and professional demands that you often struggle to find time for anything else,” says Hebert’s mid Amaris.

Hebert’s support of his mids is so great, in fact, that one of them credits it with giving him the strength and resolve he needed to “come out” to his family. Another invited Hebert to the 2018 Ring Dance. Hebert, who didn’t attend his own Ring Dance in 1981 due to the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, says it was “a deeply special and meaningful action that I’ll never forget.”

My last story is that of my own family and Nicole, a sponsor sister who made a huge impact on my family.

My parents joined the program in the mid-1980s primarily as a way to support female mids, who make up roughly 25 percent of the student body now, and accounted for even less of it then. Nicole wasn’t the first mid that my parents sponsored, but she’s the one that we became closest to for a number of reasons but, first and foremost, because of soccer.

Both Laura Boycourt (my sister) and I played soccer throughout our childhoods. So Nicole, who started in 74 of 75 games during her four years, captained the team during her senior year, and was an NCAA Academic All-American, was a natural role model to both of us.

“I was fortunate to have her, during a very formative period of my life (high school), as an example of what a young woman could be: strong, smart, athletic, passionate about her interests, and goal oriented,” recalls my sister. “To say I was inspired by her and hoped to emulate her as I prepared to head off for college is an understatement.”

Ditto for me. I was only in middle school during Nicole’s sponsorship, but I lived and breathed soccer, I ended up serving as the team’s ballboy at every home game, each of which my dad attended from the stands. We even attended the team’s postgame meals, and traveled to West Point one Halloween with a “Go Navy” carved pumpkin to cheer them on against Army. Throughout it all, Nicole asked how I was doing in school and soccer after every game, including losses, and stressed the importance of working as hard as possible at both.

Following her graduation from the Academy in 1999, Nicole continued to demonstrate this importance by going on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford, fly F/A-18 Hornet missions during two Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments, and enter NASA’s Astronaut Training Program in 2013. She’ll be one of three crew flying Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to and from the International Space Station later this year and, as some of her biggest fans, my family and I will be closely following the journey of an amazing person whom we never would have met without the sponsor program.

So thank you, Superintendent Smedberg, for creating a program that has grown into something that you’d surely be proud of!

—Steve Adams

Interested? Learn more about the USNA Sponsor Program or apply to become a sponsor before this year’s July 15, 2019 deadline, at usna.edu/Sponsor/index.php

(Photos by Dunks Photo; David Hartcorn)

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