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.”