Story by PA3 Paul Dragin, Ninth District Public Affairs
Reservist Magazine #1-2015 • Shipmates in Focus
While a student at the University of Massachusetts, Susan Vance experienced the student protest movements against the Vietnam War that were part and parcel of campuses across the country. For a young female college student at this time, joining the military did not register high on the list of possible career paths. In fact, during the early 1970’s, the percentage of military personnel who were women was just under 2%. Today, that number is almost 15%.
Such is the backdrop for Vance’s decision to join the Coast Guard Reserve. In fact, it was her only possible choice in terms of serving in the Coast Guard, since it wouldn’t be until a year later, in 1974, that the Coast Guard began allowing women to serve on active duty. “I entered when the military was not well- regarded, and being a woman in the military was even odder,” Vance says.
The fulminating student sentiment against the military that engulfed Vance as a young college student did not sit well with her. She wanted to serve her country, especially during a time when many of America’s military personnel felt under siege by the mainstream public. Joining the military at such an unpopular time forged an inner reservoir of strength in Vance that she would tap into time and time again in her civilian career.
Breaking down Barriers
Soon after enlisting in the Coast Guard Reserve in 1973, Vance decided on another career move that was odd by society’s standards: she entered law school, finishing cum laude in a class made up almost exclusively of men. “In the 1970’s, women in college were generally slotted into two fields: teaching and nursing. There were no women lawyers or judges.”
The role of storekeeper marked her budding career in the Coast Guard. She would retire after 20 years as a lieutenant commander. Over that span, she had many memorable experiences, from learning how to shoot an M-16, investigating oil spills, and inspecting vessels. Her most rewarding experience involved delivering relief to the people of Peoria, Ill, after a flood ravaged the city. She would receive the Humanitarian Service Medal for her efforts, buoyed by the opportunity to serve people during such a crisis. It is precisely these kinds of missions that intrigued Vance about joining the Coast Guard in the first place.
Jack Wall — at the time a chief boatswain’s mate who worked with Vance at the Reserve Unit Lake Michigan during the late 80’s and early 90’s — remembers Vance as a “mustang (nickname for a former enlisted member who becomes an officer), an excellent officer who related well to the enlisted members.” Being known as one who goes above and beyond, Wall recalled the time she “interviewed every unit member who needed a will, then had her law class at Saint Mary’s draw up wills for each member.” Vance highly values the three years she spent in the enlisted ranks as a storekeeper before commencing her officer career. “Those first few years as a petty officer gave me a deep appreciation for the enlisted folks and just how invaluable they are to our service.”
Practicing and Teaching
Vance continued the trend of breaking down societal barriers by becoming the first female attorney at the law firm of Cooke and Bache in Lafayette, Ind. She subsequently transferred those skills into the classroom, becoming a business professor, mentoring and positively impacting students for over 30 years. The bulk of those years were spent at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. In 2012, she was promoted to Professor Emerita in honor of her dedication to the college.
Three of Chief Wall’s daughters would go on to attend Saint Mary’s College and remember Vance drawing upon her Coast Guard experiences to use as examples in class. Another former student commented: “Professor Vance’s… enthusiasm spread to all of us. Her use of outlandish examples, that were remarkably relevant to the topics we were learning, made the material fun and easy to understand.” Mary Ann Merryman, a colleague at Saint Mary’s, found encouragement in Vance’s ability to flourish in academia and in service to the country. “I was extremely impressed with her ability to balance both careers,” she said.
Beyond the Classroom
Among Vance’s many professional pursuits, a sustaining passion for her is women’s entrepreneurship. At Saint Mary’s, she oversaw the creation of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, which offers support to female students and community members who want to start a small business. She recently served as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at the College of Management at Mohidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. She traveled extensively throughout Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, addressing women micro-business owners. “I hope to continue using my experience to assist women and come alongside them as they brave new financial opportunities,” Vance said.
Vance credits her Coast Guard experience with shaping and preparing her to defy society’s dictates, especially in the expectations of the roles women should play in society. Compared to her civilian career, she found the Coast Guard more accepting and encouraging. The Coast Guard provided her with leadership and a skill set to go forward with confidence in areas that society at that time reserved almost exclusively for men.
Merryman summed up her colleague best when she said, “Susan Vance epitomizes the woman pioneer. Throughout her career, she has ventured into unexplored territory on behalf of women.”