Evolving Dreams: How the past inspires the future

America's Heartland Coast Guard News

TEXAS CITY, Texas – If we look back through the lens of the present, we can see that small events in our history can alter the very course of the future. Many of those events come from amazing women such as Clara Barton, who founded the Red Cross in 1881, or Rosa Parks, who decided not to give up her seat on that historic bus ride in 1955. We can see that those individuals helped alter history and open doors for the generations to come.

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant is the executive officer of Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Texas City, one of the few minority women in the Coast Guard to hold that title. Not only has she excelled in her Coast Guard career, but also her personal life. She currently holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate and it’s thanks to the role models of her past that she has been able to recognize her options that have put her on a path to help set a positive example for women of the future.

Merchant’s life didn’t start out easy, she didn’t have a privileged upbringing; she was born in the crime-riddled, inner city of Chicago. Her family knew that wasn’t a good place for them and they received a much needed opportunity to depart when Merchant’s grandfather passed away, leaving his house in Mississippi to his son, Merchant’s father.

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant sits on the edge of her desk thinking about all of the women who have given her guidance over the years

Lt. Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, the executive officer of Marine Safety Unit Texas City, sits on the edge of her desk thinking about all of the women who have given her guidance over the years. Merchant is one of a handful of African-American females who hold a command cadre position in the U.S. Coast Guard. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Richard Brahm)

Growing up in Jackson, Miss., Merchant would hear her mother and father talk about the encumbrances that were piled on them by having to work on a plantation when they were growing up.

“My father and mother lived and worked on the plantation. At the time, education was a ‘bonus’ for African-Americans in rural Mississippi, because their primary duty was to work the field on the plantation,” Merchant said.

That didn’t stop Merchant’s mother from trying to better herself. The only chance she had to continue her education was when the weather would get so bad on the farm that they could no longer work. It took her an extra two years to finish her education, but she was eventually able to graduate from high school.

“My mother is the reason I’ve always been very adamant about education, about having opportunities and seizing them when they arise,” Merchant noted. “She was why I always took school very serious, because I saw all of the problems my parents had just getting a basic education.”

As a child growing up she always wanted to be a doctor and over the years people encouraged her toward that goal. After graduating high school, she attended Tougaloo College in Jackson. While she was working on her degree, an opportunity arose that she didn’t expect, leading her down a path less traveled.

“I was going to college and majoring in biology pre-med with aspirations to become a doctor and during my junior year a roommate joined the Coast Guard through [the Minority Officer Recruiting Effort],” Merchant said. “I saw her in her uniform and asked her what she was doing? I knew if she could do it, I could too.”

“It was almost like a blur, it was such a seamless process. One minute I was checking into [the Coast Guard] and the next thing I know I’m taking tests, I’m signing the papers and getting my physical. I often look at that time in my life like it was something that was meant to be.”

While Merchant was a junior officer stationed in New Orleans, she was able to meet a woman who helped transform both the Coast Guard’s and Merchant’s future.

“I had the privilege to meet Dr. Olivia Hooker and she was amazing,” Merchant exclaimed. “She grew up in Tulsa, Okla., during the Tulsa riots. She lived through those riots and started fighting for women’s rights, as well as for women to be a part of the military.”

Hooker tried to join the Navy twice and wasn’t accepted. She wrote to all of the services and the Coast Guard presented her with an opportunity to become part of the Coast Guard Women’s Reserves, known as the SPARS, during World War II.

“When I see what Dr. Hooker went through − all of the discrimination and the race riots; then she joined the Coast Guard and became a doctor − that truly inspires me and makes me realize that I am an example in this organization,” Merchant said.

“[Being in a command cadre position] is something that a lot of women haven’t had the opportunity to accomplish and I see this through the lens of being an African-American female,” Merchant stated.

Even though Merchant’s childhood aspirations of earning the title of doctor didn’t happen the way she had originally planned. Using the lessons of the past, she was able to walk a path less traveled and still follow her passion to become a doctor.

“For women today, I don’t want them to close their eyes or their minds to opportunities that may be out there that they don’t think they can achieve or they don’t fit into a fictitious box. Don’t be afraid to make those choices, the ones that get you out of your box. Don’t live your life for someone else. Work hard and find your passion.”

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