USMMA alums to aspiring women mariners: go forth and conquer

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Susan Winfree, a 1985 graduate of the academy, was one of three women speakers to share their experience and encourage young women to embrace the academy and unconventional careers. (Photo courtesy of Emily Garner)
Susan Winfree, a 1985 graduate of the academy, was one of three women speakers to share their experience and encourage young women to embrace the academy and unconventional careers. (Photo courtesy of Emily Garner)

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy alums called for women to embrace their strengths, unconventional careers and take advantage of “the Kings Point network” on at the academy’s ‘High Tea’ event on Thursday, in commemoration of Women’s History Month and the academy’s 75th anniversary.

The celebration recognized both the Kings Point-based academy’s 75 years of existence and 40 years of having women graduates, who first graduated in 1978.

It also showcased the accomplishments of some of these women, who have gone to do everything from being leaders in the maritime industry to found their own legal firms.

Susan Winfree, who graduated from the academy in 1985, said the academy gave her the tools to pursue an unconventional career. But only 867 women have graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point in its history, she said, which is something that should change.

“Your challenge that I’m giving to you is to spread the word about Kings Point to women,” Winfree, the vice president of workforce development at the New York Shipping Association, said. “I am so tired of being in a male-dominated industry.”

Jeanne-Marie Van Hemmen, a 1986 graduate, encourages young women to embrace their strengths and push forward. (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)
Jeanne-Marie Van Hemmen, a 1986 graduate, encourages young women to embrace their strengths and push forward. (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)

Winfree also challenged students to talk with other young women about pursuing “non-conventional” careers and support Kings Point as alumni.

Jeanne-Marie Van Hemmen, a 1986 graduate who founded her own maritime law firm, said that sometimes people’s feedback can be discouraging. But, she advised, women should focus on what they see as their “finest attributes” and find a “platform to stand on.”

“You can’t be all things to all people, but if you are true to yourself, my experience is that you find your way,” Van Hemmen said.

Margaret Gordon, a 1985 alum, attributed many of her career successes to Kings Point. She worked as a director for environmental and quality assurance for Marine Transport Lines for many years, before returning ashore to work for a handful of other companies.

Margaret Gordon, who has headed security matters at the Staten Island Ferry since 2004, said Kings Point has provided her a "great deal of successes." (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)
Margaret Gordon, who has headed security matters at the Staten Island Ferry since 2004, said Kings Point has provided her a “great deal of successes.” (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)

But Gordon ultimately returned to the maritime industry, she said, and became the director of safety and security for the Staten Island Ferry in 2004 – a job she still holds.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting, no two days are the same,” Gordon said. “It’s an awesome industry that isn’t boring and there’s so many great stories to always tell about a job in the maritime industry.”

Gordon also encouraged women to take advantage of “the Kings Point network” and their experience.

“I think when you get out of Kings Point, as Susan said, sometimes there’s memories here that you just go, ‘I’m never going back, I’m never giving them money, I’m never going to be a part of this network,'” Gordon said. “Well, you kind of get over it. And you do because you see how powerful it is.”

Capt. Jack Buono, the former president and CEO of SeaRiver Maritime Inc., an ExxonMobil subsidiary, said the students here – both men and women – choose a difficult path where they are pursuing personal greatness.

Capt. Jack Buono addresses a crowd of current students and Kings Point alumni, saying he looks forward to the day where men and women face "equal challenges." (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)
Capt. Jack Buono addresses a crowd of current students and Kings Point alumni, saying he looks forward to the day where men and women face “equal challenges.” (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)

But, he said, he believes women have faced more challenges – yet managed to do great things.

“I think we’ve made great progress there, but I do believe women have had a harder time. Shame on us and shame on the industry,” Buono, a 1978 graduate, said. “But don’t let that dissuade you, because it is changing, and there have been some incredible women before you who have paved that way in the industry, and you need to follow that.”

Buono added that one of those women was Tracey Gunnlaugsson, a 1991 academy graduate, who went on to succeed him as the youngest head of SeaRiver Maritime Inc. ever.

“Go out there and conquer. You have every right to achieve your greatness in the maritime industry and change this industry into what it should be- change it into an industry where there’s equal challenges for men and women,” Buono said.

More than two dozen women attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's 'High Tea' event. (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)
More than two dozen women attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s ‘High Tea’ event. (Photo courtesy of Emily Gramer)

Midshipman Emily Gramer, 22, a regimental public affairs officer at Kings Point graduating this year, said she aims to sail in the maritime industry.

And for her, seeing so many girls in attendance and hearing from women who have gone through the Kings Point experience to have diverse careers was even more encouraging.

“It’s awesome to see these people,” Gramer said. “They’ve had incredibly different careers coming from the same spot, so it gives us a lot of hope of what’s coming for us in the next couple of years.”

The United States Merchant Marine Academy has faced its own challenges, with sexual assault being a dominant issue in recent years.

According to a USMMA’s  survey of campus midshipmen, 19.5 percent of women and 0.8 percent of men there said they had been sexually assaulted during the 2015-2016 academic year – but only four cases were reported to Merchant Marine Academy officials. The same survey also showed that 73 percent of the assaults occurred on campus.

The academy’s accreditation status with the Middle States Commission on High Education was once put on warning, due to failure to meet five of their 14 standards, although now it is no longer under threat.

The academy had also temporarily suspended Sea Year, where midshipmen serve aboard a merchant vessel, to hold special training on acceptable conduct following reports of bullying, sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Rear Adm. James Helis, the academy’s superintendent, previously said the academy has hired people to help deal with sexual misconduct and plans on hiring more officials to work in the school’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program.

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