Meet the first Female African American U.S. Coast Guard Commander of a Marine Safety Unit, a Girl Scout alum

Meet Zeita Merchant, a Rising Star in the U.S. Coast Guard

Zeita Merchant

Zeita Merchant majored in biology at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, sure she would be heading to medical school right after graduation.

But then she passed a Coast Guard booth set up on campus.

“Something changed that day,” recalls Zeita, now 43. “I had been contemplating how I was going to be able to pay my way through medical school and I was visualizing the debt adding up, so I decided to talk to the recruiter.”

During that conversation, she learned that if she was accepted into the College Student Pre-Commissioning Initiative (CSPI) program, not only would the Coast Guard pay her tuition, but they’d pay her an annual $35,000 salary, too.

“Hearing that I could get paid for going to school and that this was about the same amount of money my mom was making helped push me into the decision to pursue a Coast Guard career,” she says.

In 1997, Zeita joined the Coast Guard and went on to be deployed as a commander in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and later in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“Those deployments really affected me,” she says. “Going to these places and seeing the damage and the struggle that the people were going through was tough,” Zeita reflects. “But what I saw was how resilient the people were. Even though their homes were flooded, they insisted on cooking food for us and making sure we had what we needed. I’ll never forget it.”

Most recently Zeita served as commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago, tasked with protecting the city’s waterways. She’s not only the first woman to hold this position, she’s the first female African American commanding officer to lead a Marine Safety Unit.

It’s no surprise, then, that last year Zeita was selected to be a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Zeita, who has long served as a board member of BUILD Chicago, a nonprofit that focuses on gang intervention in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods—including the one she grew up in—says that being in the Coast Guard is very empowering.

“Usually when people see me they’re surprised because I don’t look like your typical Coast Guard officer,” says Zeita. “There aren’t many other women who look like me in the Coast Guard.”

Ultimately, it’s Zeita’s family that keeps her inspired to continue the important work she does as a public servant.

“My mom was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and she did that at the age of 20,” Zeita says. “She didn’t have an opportunity for education after that and she always tells me that she’s living her life through me. I’m most proud to be able to have her on this journey with me. My mom and my siblings are always my plus-ones.”