Foreign naval students increase Pole among seniors from several nations who attend academy

May 22, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

When the 908 seniors graduate from the Naval Academy today, most will take a few weeks off, then report for duty to their ships, submarines, flight schools or the Marines.

But Marcin Ratajczk will immediately board a plane to Poland so that he can keep an appointment first thing Monday -- at the Polish navy's personnel office in downtown Warsaw.

Ratajczk (pronounced: ruh-TY-chik) is the third Polish citizen to graduate from the academy, which opened its doors to Poland and other former communist countries in 1992. Also, he is one of 11 graduating foreign exchange students bound not for the U.S. Navy or the Marines but for a military career in Turkey or Thailand, Ecuador or Estonia.

Like many U.S. colleges, the academy has long taught foreign students, about 40 each year. And, like many midshipmen, they miss girlfriends, other friends and mom's cooking.

What is distinctive about Ratajczk and his international peers is that they learn about the U.S. military and U.S. ships, then go back to serve a required four to eight years in the military forces of their homelands.

Ratajczk's four years in Annapolis are also distinctive in symbolizing communism's demise.

The Department of Defense does not allow the academy to accept foreign exchange students from communist countries or

countries practicing terrorism. So, no Eastern European countries were represented at the academy until three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One Polish student graduated in 1996, another last year.

This year, Ratajczk is joined by a student from Estonia, a former Soviet country, in representing former communist nations.

"Considering 40 years of Cold War, it's interesting that just a few years after it was over, we were allowed to come to the academy," he said.

Ratajczk, 24, had studied for two semesters at the Polish Naval Academy when he learned about the new program to allow Poles into the U.S. academy. "It was mainly curiosity and sense of adventure," he said.

The hardest part, as it is for most academy students, was the first year, when upperclassmen mercilessly interrogate and berate the "plebes." Ratajczk's rusty English added to his troubles.

Plebes are required to know the number of days until seniors graduate. Once, some seniors asked Ratajczk the number of days. Ratajczk said, "Days? It's Tuesday." They screamed in his face.

Seniors would ask him questions about the United States, and he would try to explain that all he knew about America was Bancroft Hall, the academy dormitory. More screams.

"It wasn't the most happy time of my life," he said. "It took me time to realize they were doing it because my shoes were not clean enough or something and not because they didn't like me."

Ratajczk will serve in the Polish navy for seven or eight years. Despite spending the past four years training for another country's navy, he thinks the lessons of leadership and seamanship will translate once he is on the Baltic Sea.

"The Naval Academy is more like preparing an officer to be a rounded person who has an idea about this and that -- a little engineering, a little science, a little history," he said. "They're all so universal, they're applicable to almost any military institution."

Ratajczk said he is eager to return to his family and friends. "On the other hand," he said, "I know the friends I made here I most likely won't get to see them for, well, forever."

An increasing number of countries are being represented at the academy. The first Japanese student since World War II graduated in 1993. Two Croatians just completed their freshman year.

At least one exchange student is headed toward the top levels of his country's government. Academy basketball player Sitapha Savane of Senegal hopes to join his father in politics after serving his four years in Senegal's navy.

Savane's father had led a left-wing opposition party and was arrested, kidnapped and jailed several times before his party prevailed; he is now a member of Senegal's Parliament.

Students from Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Thailand, Ecuador,

Estonia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Peru and Singapore also will graduate today.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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