Life after high school doesn’t always mean college comes next. Some students choose to go the traditional route and jump immediately into a university, some choose to take a gap year, and some may even choose to take a few classes a semester while working full or part-time jobs. Emily Brazee didn’t think she would go to college at all.
Raised in Magnolia, Texas by her grandmother and her great aunt, Brazee had no desire to go to college once graduated from her secondary education. She remembers her childhood fondly and describes how being brought up by an older generation influenced her greatly growing up. “I was happy. I listened to a lot of old country music like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, and I have a very soft spot in my heart for that genre.” She describes her love for her somewhat classic Americana upbringing that was shaped by the strong women who raised her. “The best part of my life as a youth was spent with people who valued those things and ideologies,” she reminisces. One might think with a traditional upbringing comes traditional goals such as receiving a degree from an educational institution, buying a home, or settling into a 9-5 job upon graduation. However, none of this interested Brazee. She felt called to leave Magnolia behind.
“At about 15 or 16 years old, someone mentioned the Coast Guard and I thought, Sure, why not?. I liked that it was domestic because I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to stay in this country. I didn’t want to go who-knows-where doing who-knows-what.” She enlisted when she turned 18 and began boot camp five months after graduating high school. She had a hold-over period between graduating boot camp and beginning Coast Guard Training where she spent six months at sea traveling along the pacific coast from Honolulu, Hawaii to Alaska to ensure other countries were not illegally fishing in our waters. After graduating from basic training in Paloma California she immediately received an order locating here in Portland in December of 2015. Here she began creating a sense of stability and self-reliance, “So often you put out these big decisions, and I knew that if I didn’t do it [enlist] I wasn’t going to be content with what I was doing. It was one of those moments where you literally see two futures in front of you.”
Stationed in the sector of Northern New England, she began taking classes during the winter months at USM online while working 12-hour shifts overnight for the Coast Guard, two days on, two days off. “No one’s on the water in the winter and there would be weeks where nothing would be happening, so I decided to go to school and see what it was all about.” She majored in criminology, taking one or two classes a semester, and she is now on track to graduate this May with a 3.9 GPA and other academic achievements and accomplishments that would never have been accessible to her from her small town in Texas.
However, self-reliance alone wasn’t enough to keep her driven. Brazee claims that her softball coach in high school who she has known for the last 10 years changed her life. “She attended my Coast Guard graduation and my training graduation in California, she’s visited me here twice, and I even lived with her in between graduating high school and going to Bootcamp” She reminisced, “In anyone’s eyes, I was a troubled kid. She told me to try out for softball and it became this outlet for me. It was like, Finally, someone sees me. Someone cares. She’s been there for me ever since”. Without this, Brazee admitted she didn’t know where she would be today.
Brazee left the Coast Guard in 2019 and as she got more involved with her studies at the University she started working at the Veterans Resource Center on campus. She is now leading the Veterans Calling Program to offer aid and resources to veterans in need; the volunteers reach out to the veterans at USM twice a semester to ask if they feel that they are being helped during their educational journey, or if they could use any extra support. “We call every veteran and ask them things like, ‘How are you with your benefits? Do you have the resources you need?’ In a roundabout way, we are asking them how their mental health is” she explained, “We’ve really been able to make a difference in people’s lives which has felt meaningful.”
Though she believes there isn’t much to tell, Brazee’s story is authentic. It’s a narrative of self-reliance, learning, and growth that conjures up the same feelings and motivations representative in the American dream, and is proof traditionalists, as she called herself, don’t always take the traditional route.
For more information about the Veterans Resource Center, check online.