Veteran Draws on Experiences in Coast Guard for Architecture Success

Image courtesy of Emma Stewart.

How a broken ankle led to the pursuit of a budding career

By Caroline Andrade

Emma Stewart began her educational journey at Academy of Art University’s School of Architecture (ARH) this past summer with a commitment to helping others.

Hailing from a military family, Stewart joined the United States Coast Guard at the age of 17, six months after graduating from high school at 16 years old. At that time, she was unsure of her career path and needed some time to decide what she wanted to do. However, she knew that she wanted to gain practical skills, have a one-of-a-kind experience in the Coast Guard and be able to use the GI Bill to attend college after serving her country.

She completed a four-year stint in the Coast Guard as a Boatswain’s Mate and was stationed at Small Boat Station Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California for the first two years of her service. At the Channel Islands, she was a CPR instructor responsible for providing training to three Coast Guard units which enabled 45 servicemen and women to maintain lifesaving qualifications, including the CGC Blacktip, the Marine Inspections Unit of Santa Barbara, California, and her own unit at Small Boat Station Channel Islands Harbor. She was the primary Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and performed and scheduled preventive maintenance and emergency repairs on other operational boats in addition to that. “It taught me how one person in a small group of people can change things, and I learned how to work and trust the team,” said Stewart.

She was then transferred to Coast Guard Cutter (CGC), Yerba Buena Island, where she performed the majority of her search and rescue operations during the next half of her service. “I was a crew member and an engineer on a search and rescue boat,” said Stewart during a recent phone interview. “We kind of operated [as] a fire station, like there was a base of 30 people and we just did search and rescue.”

The search and rescue work also taught her how to manage her time and stress. “If I encounter stress in my life, I know how to handle it,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of very good practice with that.”

Stewart’s service in the Coast Guard came to a close in 2013 with an honorable discharge. “Ever since working in a job like that, I couldn’t do a job that I’m not proud of,” she said, adding, “I think that there’s probably a lot of little ways that it’s made me a more capable student or a capable person, but I think a lot of them are not necessarily noticed on a day-to-day.”

Her path to architecture began with a broken ankle—a life-changing occurrence from a ski trip last year. “That was a turning point in my life and without it, I may not be in architecture school now,” she said. “It just prompted a career that does not depend on bodily requirements—one that is cerebral.”

Currently in her second semester at the Academy, Stewart shared that her experience in ARH has been both wonderful and exciting. “The instructors are amazing,” she said. “[There are] inspiring upper-class men and women, and passionate and committed peers [who] make it a wonderful learning environment.”

Stewart noted that the sense of rigorous study at the Academy was not unlike the environment she had experienced while in the Coast Guard and was relatively similar in schedule. “I tend to be curious and like to learn,” she said. “Staying busy with the level of work that we get has been fulfilling.”

Her interest in architecture stems from the fact that it provides solutions to community issues, which inspires her to get involved. As a B.Arch student, Stewart admits she was drawn to the adaptability. “It makes your world bigger. You look at everything differently and I like that it’s so hands-on so quickly,” she shared. “Architecture is even broader than I had expected, and I really believe everyone should have access to spaces, buildings, nonprofits, and civics.”

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