Letters From the Front, USCG

Hay que tener conexiones: El refrán de mi padre

By LCDR Theresa Bigay, Senior Travelling Marine Inspector Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise, USCG

My father understood the value of building connections better than anyone I know and, as I grew up, he instilled that upon me constantly. I remember him saying “hay que tener conexiones” whenever he helped one of his many friends in town. That town, Naranjito, Puerto Rico (PR), is where I grew up. My childhood home and countless other blessings, were the direct result of my father’s ability to build relationships through his selflessness in support of others. An Army veteran, and family comedian, he inspired me to join the service. In 2010, I commissioned as an officer in the Coast Guard.

I failed to grasp the profundity of my dad’s “consejo” until I was a senior Lieutenant. During my 13-year career, I built a strong support system of colleagues, which turned into friends, and friends, which turned into family. I, however, was unaware of the strength of these “conexiones” until 2017 when, while serving as Investigations Division Chief in Portland, OR, I volunteered for the Hurricane Maria response in PR.

I had not heard from my father since the day the hurricane was due to make landfall. While leading operational and humanitarian missions in support of hard-hit communities, I was struck by personal tragedy. My father was one of the over 3000 casualties. With the island in disarray, amid a total blackout and without communication systems, my Coast Guard and civilian “conexiones” sprang into action. Friends from across the nation began to help with complicated logistics, as I dealt with backlogs and a crippled medical system, while teammates helped me to continue hurricane response efforts. My dad’s adage helped me harness the grit needed to support hurricane response efforts while giving him the meaningful memorial service he deserved.

As a Coast Guard marine safety professional, networking is imperative; however, my father’s “conexiones” transcended mere professional networks. At its core, his “consejo” was about humility and service in leadership. What I learned from him informs my approach to building strong support networks.

1. Being deliberate about your connections: Building and maintaining connections requires intrinsic motivation. You need to actively engage and check-in. Belonging to a group, whether your Academy class or Hispanic organizations, offers mutual support for folks who share similar experiences. However, building bridges across those groups is the key to diversifying support networks and learning from different perspectives.

2. Being an authentic leader: Building and maintaining connections requires trust. Being deliberate about them only works if you are genuine. Authentic leaders are their true selves. As my dad used to say, they are confident enough to be humble. One needs to be resolute and selfless in supporting their connections, and unpretentious in accepting support. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and my father’s death, strong connections were integral to my mental health. We all have our go-to people; however, now more than ever, we must be deliberate and authentic to build the type of “conexiones” which can lift you in times of crisis.

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