Captain Zeita Merchant never anticipated pursuing a career in the Coast Guard while growing up in Mississippi. Her mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school at the age of 20 while her father dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Still, her parents instilled in her the value of education and service, and this would inspire Merchant to later join the Coast Guard.
She had initially wanted to be a doctor while studying biology at Tougaloo College but she knew she couldn’t meet the cost involved in going to medical school. A campus Coast Guard recruiter later told her that his outfit would take care of her tuition and give her a salary.
“I didn’t know anything about the Coast Guard. I didn’t even know it was part of the military. After I signed up, I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’” Merchant recalled in an interview with GW.
Today, through her hard work and determination, she has been appointed as Rear Admiral (lower half) in the United States Coast Guard. Her appointment makes her the first African-American woman to be selected for Flag rank in the Coast Guard’s 233-year history, United States Representative Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) said in a statement.
Two years ago, Merchant accomplished another feat when she became the first African-American woman to be sector commander for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector New York, the largest port on the East Coast, with the task of keeping the port considered one of the nation’s busiest safe.
At the time of her appointment, she became only the third African-American female to attain the rank of captain. She had prior to that been a special assistant to the vice commandant at the service’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. She also served as Military Congressional Fellow for the U.S. House of Representatives and incident commander in charge of the Coast Guard’s hurricane recovery efforts in Texas and Puerto Rico, according to GW. Indeed, she has been certified as one of the Coast Guard’s top Emergency Managers leading “large-scale, multi-jurisdictional incident responses across the Nation,” the statement by Thompson said.
Besides holding a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Tougaloo College, she also holds a Doctorate of Business Administration and Master of Quality Systems Management from the National Graduate School at New England College of Business and a Master of Public Administration from George Washington University.
In her over 20 years with the Coast Guard, she has received several awards, including the 2019 Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration Outstanding Achievement in Public Service and her personal military awards which include “three Meritorious Service Medals, six Coast Guard Commendation Medals three Coast Guard Achievement Medals, three Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medals, and four Commandant’s Letters of Commendation, Marine Safety Insignia and Commandant’s Staff Identification Badge,” Coast Guard Atlantic area wrote.
It’s not easy being in the service as a Black woman but Merchant, who has also served as a National Security Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said she got support from her colleagues.
“People have told me they’ve never seen a woman or a minority in my position or at my rank, and that it makes a big difference to see someone who looks like them succeed,” Merchant said to GW in 2021 when she was made captain.
Women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented at all levels of the United States Coast Guard, particularly in higher ranks, according to research from the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC). The research found that 31% of Coast Guard members are racial or ethnic minorities, compared with a 42% average across all services.