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Senior Mar­garet Handel (left) will enroll in the Great Lakes Mar­itime Academy after grad­u­ating from Hillsdale. Mar­garet Handel | Courtesy

Tens of thou­sands of ships criss­cross global waters, and four years from now, senior Mar­garet Handel will be working on one of them.

After grad­u­ating from Hillsdale, Handel won’t be getting a Ph.D. in eco­nomics as she once thought. She will be studying to become a third mate in the U.S. body of com­mercial ships called Mer­chant Marine.

Handel’s knew she didn’t want to sit behind a desk after grad­u­ation, so her curiosity was sparked when a friend men­tioned his interest in the Mer­chant Marine. She looked up starting salaries and began exploring the industry.

“The more I learned about the Mer­chant Marine, the more that I realized that it fit what I wanted out of a career,” Handel said. “It offers me a chance to explore the world while devel­oping lead­ership skills.”

It also offers her a chance to travel the sea.

“Ships are fas­ci­nating,” Handel said. “Everyone should watch doc­u­men­taries about them. As an econ­omist, I am fas­ci­nated by the ability we have to move stuff around the world so easily, cheaply, quickly, and safely. This is hon­estly exciting for me — I get to be a part of this amazing economy and amazing movement around the world.”

She will be the first Handel to pursue a career in the Mer­chant Marine.  

“It’s not a thing which ran in my family, not even a little bit,” Handel said. “The sea­faring life has not uttered its siren song for them yet.”

So when she broke the news to her parents, she said they did not see it coming.

“I called them and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not going to grad school. I’m going to get a degree in Mer­chant Marine trans­portation, and join the Mer­chant Marine.’ There was silence on the end of that line,” Handel said.

As a college graduate and a female, Handel is not the average student of the Great Lakes Mar­itime Academy. She is not, as she puts it, normal.

“Not even a little. The admin­is­trators of the new school look at me funny,” Handel said. “My advisor was like, ‘You already have a degree in eco­nomics from Hillsdale College, and you want to do this. Are you sure?’ But I’m sure.”

At The Great Lakes Mar­itime Academy, Handel will learn how to pilot ships, launch lifeboats, and nav­igate either by GPS or by the sun and stars. For at least 300 days, she will train on com­mercial vessels on both the Great Lakes and the ocean. At the end of three years, if she passes the Coast Guard licensing exam, she will become a cer­tified third mate, according to the Great Lakes Mar­itime Academy website.

Then she will be out on the water, coping with the unpre­dictability of nature, sorting out machinery problems, and main­taining the cargo. Depending on where she works, she could also face political ten­sions and problems involving pirates.

“You are working in an inher­ently hostile envi­ronment. The sea is not a safe place,” Handel said. “You have to be able to react like a leader with the safety of your men in mind. And I want that. I want to be worthy of it.”

Handel will also be working amidst some of the most beau­tiful sights in the world, according to Asso­ciate Dean of Men Jeffrey Rogers, who served in the Navy for 26 years.

“Just being insignif­icant — that ship was huge — but in the ocean, it was a speck, and I was below a speck,” Rogers said. “Some­thing about going off to the high seas gives you an awesome per­spective of just who the heck you are.”

Not all of Handel’s career will be ter­ribly exciting, however. In fact, some days risk being dread­fully boring when she is in the middle of the ocean and not working, she said.

“You have to learn to keep yourself busy, but I’m an only child and home-schooled, so I can do that,” Handel said. “But there will always be chal­lenges and new things you have to face. I’m not antic­i­pating boredom.”

Handel said she doesn’t know where she will go after grad­u­ating. She might serve in the Great Lakes or in inter­na­tional waters. Either way, she won’t be working at a desk, she will be trav­eling the world and pur­suing adventure.  

“It’s not what your average bear does after college,” Handel said. “It’s not typical, but we were not trained to be typical here at Hillsdale College, so I guess I’m just ful­filling my edu­cation.”