Military Veteran Finds Calling in Maritime Program
Jennifer Allen is a U.S. military veteran who lives with PTSD. She is also a recent MERTS graduate pursuing a career in the maritime industry.
MERTS (Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station) is a small campus situated just east of Astoria on the banks of the Columbia River. It is part of Clatsop Community College and houses a variety of programs including a robust maritime curriculum offering U.S. Coast Guard certifications and associate degrees.
“Before coming to MERTS I was going through a rough patch,” Jennifer said. “I wasn't sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do,” she explained.
What Jennifer did know is that she had a dream of living and working on the water but had none of the operational experience she would need to captain a vessel. She reached out to a school in Portland which referred her to the MERTS maritime program. Not only could Jennifer get the vessel operations training she needed at MERTS, but it was close to home and would accept the GI Bill—two important considerations for her.
“There are very few schools with U.S. Coast Guard-accredited degrees that also accept the GI Bill,” Jennifer explained. “The next-closest option was Cal Maritime, and I didn't want to go to California and be in school for four years,” she said.
Jennifer initially came to MERTS for a one-year certificate, but when she realized how much she enjoyed the classes (and how much there is to learn) she took every maritime class MERTS has to offer. She graduated in 2018 with a two-year associate degree.
When she enrolled in 2015, Jennifer was one of only five female students in the program. Coming from a military background, however, this was not an unfamiliar situation for her. By the time Jennifer graduated, seven more women joined the program. “We outnumbered the guys on the (school’s) boat at that point,” she said.
Jennifer also had the unique experience of going through the maritime program accompanied by a service animal. Linus, a dog who helps Jennifer navigate life with PTSD, went to school with her at MERTS and also sailed with the class. “I wasn't sure how Linus would be on a boat,” Jennifer said, “but he loved it! He became a mascot of sorts.”
Since graduating from the maritime program, Jennifer has worked on research vessels doing sea floor mapping for Oregon State University and spent part of the winter on a tugboat in Alaska transporting fuel to small villages. Today, she’s preparing to take a new position with NOAA, based in Newport on the Oregon coast.
“Now that I've done some maritime work after graduation, I'm more confident to rely on my training and education,” Jennifer said. “MERTS was really a life-changer for me. I rediscovered myself during this program, and I’m getting back to the person I was more than 10 years ago.”
MERTS is raising funds for a campus expansion that will accommodate more maritime students, courses and technology. This expansion will help satisfy demand for credentialed and degreed personnel in the maritime industry which is facing historic labor shortages.