West Point will make history this weekend, graduating the largest number of African American women in the prestigious military academy's 217-year history.
West Point says the class of 2019 is its most diverse ever, both by race and by gender. "CBS This Morning" spoke with four cadets about the changes they've seen at the training grounds for the U.S. Army.
Each of the four soon-to-be graduates used a different word to describe their experience at the academy: "camaraderie," "perseverance," "adventure," and "grit." But they all believe diversity is the key to success.
"We don't want everybody in the Army to look like me," First Captain David Bindon told "CBS This Morning" national correspondent Jerika Duncan, adding "for me, working with people who don't look like me brings different perspectives to my approach to problems. And that helps me solve problems better."
This year, 34 African American women will graduate from West Point and 23-year-old Gabrielle Alford is one of them.
"We're gonna be going out and having to solve complex problems. And so that's gonna take creative solutions," Alford said, adding "it really helps if you can look up to a leader who looks like you who comes from the same background as you."
Marina Camacho agrees. She is Mexican American, and the first in her family to join the military.
"While we're increasing our inclusivity at West Point, we're not lowering the standards. We're not lowering expectations," she said. "People are rising to that occasion."
"This year marks the 1,000th Jewish person to graduate at West Point," Duncan said to Noah Carlen. "What is the significance of that for you?"
"I think it just really helps to emphasize that you can be Jewish and American and […] those don't have to be two separate things," he said.
West Point wasn't always a cheerleader for diversity. Although the academy was established in 1802, it didn't graduate its first black cadet until Henry O. Flipper in 1877. It took nearly 100 more years before it allowed the first class of women, who graduated in 1980.
But when the African American women from the class of 2016 posed with their fists in the air, they drew controversy and faced racist comments on social media, some allegedly from fellow students. Critics claimed the photo was a political statement.
"What did you all make of that and what did it represent to you as a soon to be West Point graduate?" Duncan asked.
"I thought the photo was about pride and about unity and the fist is a symbol of strength. I thought it was extremely unfortunate that people decided to take it out of context," Alford said, adding "that was the first thing that kind of changed my perception about West Point for the worse."
"So that was a difficult time for you?" Duncan responded.
"It was eye-opening," she said. "We talk a lot about character, we talk a lot about diversity and the importance of it. People can give the textbook answer about why diversity's important, about why women are included and women are equal. But then you go online and you see that's not really how everybody feels."
Alford wants young black girls wondering if they can succeed at West Point to know that they "absolutely" can. "I was fortunate enough to have 33 other African American women going through the same experiences as me," she said. "Whether it's your sexual orientation, your race, your gender, we're in a place today where you can always find somebody to help you, empathize with you and pull you through."