At the Helm

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UW Tacoma senior Aidan Helt left behind a difficult childhood by becoming a merchant mariner, a journey that took her from her old home to a new one.

The ocean has a special place in the human imagination. Some of our oldest stories – think “The Odyssey” – cast the briny deep as one of its central characters. More than 70% of the Earth is covered in ocean and yet something like 80% of the ocean remains “unmapped, unobserved or unexplored.”

Many of us have stood on a beach, felt the remnants of a wave sneak between our toes. We’ve looked out over that rolling blue mass and marveled at its size. There, at the edge of the horizon is both mystery and opportunity. The ocean connects us, provides a physical barrier, and yet it also offers a means of transport, maybe even escape.

Those who venture out onto the sea discover new places or new parts of themselves. The journey is filled with moments, snapshots — some taken with a camera, some sketched in the mind — of beauty. Moonrise near the equator. A pod of dolphins jumping out of the water. Meeting someone new in a place you never thought you’d visit.

It’s not all beauty. The ocean is always moving, always rising and falling, so too are the people. One’s balance, indeed one’s own gravity is always being reconfigured. In this environment, getting your feet set is at once a matter of urgency and impossible to do with any degree of certainty or permanence.

Change of Scenery

The sea has always been part of Aidan Helt’s story. Helt is a native of Ketchikan, Alaska. The city is on the southwestern edge of Revillagigedo Island and can only be accessed via plane or boat.

Helt has a complicated relationship with her hometown. “Alaska is one of the more beautiful places that I’ve ever been,” she said. “It’s where I’m from and where most of my family still lives– I love it.” Helt’s life in Ketchikan wasn’t easy. At nine she entered the foster care system. At age 14 she was arrested and ultimately sent to a juvenile detention center where she served two years. Upon release Helt took to the road. “I just traveled around the state doing odd jobs,” she said. “I was essentially homeless.”

"I feel confident that wherever I'm headed, that it'll be great. I've been given a lot of really great tools and I'm really thankful for that," - Aidan Helt.Helt wanted to start over but didn’t quite know how. She returned to Ketchikan and spent her days either working or cruising the local mall.  On one such walk she met a man named Ralph Mirsky. “He was probably about 6-foot-3 with a silver handlebar mustache,” said Helt. Mirsky was working a merchant marine booth at a job fair being held at the mall. “I told him I was planning on joining the U.S. Marines and within a few minutes he’d convinced me to be a merchant mariner instead,” said Helt. “He asked if I wanted to get paid to travel the world. I of course said yes.”

A few months later Helt watched her island shrink from view through the window of a passenger plane en route, first to Seattle, then to a maritime academy in Piney Point, Maryland.

Head Above Water

The "Merchant Marine" is the name generally given to the commercial service of transporting cargo and passengers around the world aboard U.S.-flagged ships, staffed with U.S. civilians. Today there are about 180 privately-owned U.S.-flagged ocean-going vessels that make up the U.S. Merchant Marine. There are many thousands of other vessels in service that are flagged for other countries. In wartime, the U.S. Navy can call upon the U.S. Merchant Marine to deliver military personnel and matériel to war zones.

The academy Helt attended is today known as the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, affiliated with the Seafarers International Union.

Before, the sea served to cut Helt off from the world. This time the rolling waves pushed her out into it. “I went to Greece, Kuwait, Japan, the United Arab Emirates,” she said. “I was also part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and got to work aboard a research vessel that was mapping the ocean bottom.”

Helt spent the hours aboard cleaning and repairing the ship as well as helping to load and unload. Life as a merchant mariner is hard and often includes working 12-hour days with no days off on a vessel that isn’t scheduled to return to port for weeks. Helt loved it. To her, the open ocean provided space to think and reflect. At sea no one knew her or her past. The future seemed as open and endless as the water stretched out before her.

Feet Firmly Set

Helt worked for the Seafarers International Union in Tacoma. “My home port was here in Tacoma,” she said. “I started exploring the city after I got off a ship and I fell in love with the place.” Helt eventually left the Merchant Marines and took a position with Washington State Ferries.

Dry land doesn’t have waves but it’s not without tumult. Helt met someone, got married, had a baby, but the marriage didn’t work out and she ended up getting divorced. A few years later she met someone new. The couple had four children together. Life was often challenging but largely good. Helt decided to stay home and raise her kids. She did this for six years until her partner (they have since ended their relationship) suffered an injury that made it difficult for him to work. “We’d lost our car, two apartments and that really set us into motion,” said Helt.

Helt’s neighbor attended Pierce College. She reached out to find out more the school. “Growing up I was told, ‘You don’t need to go to college,’” said Helt. “I can remember checking out when people would come to my high school to talk about college because I knew it wasn’t a conversation meant for me.”

Helt enrolled in Pierce College Fort Steilacoom where she earned an associate’s degree before transferring to UW Tacoma. Helt graduates in June with a degree in business management and a minor in economics. She has applied to graduate programs — one for business, one for law — but hasn’t heard back yet.

These past few years have been busy for Helt. She works for the Student Activities Board. Helt also participated in the Center for Service and Leadership’s 2020 Spring Breakaway just before the pandemic really took hold. Since February of this year Helt has been assisting with Virginia Mason Franciscan Health’s Covid-19 response. “I’ve worked at both the call center and the vaccine site,” she said. This is on top of her regular course load. And on top of the fact that Helt is helping to raise five children.

Helt gets some assistance with this last part from her children’s fathers and from her mother. Still, quiet space is at a premium for the soon-to-be graduate. Not that long ago one could go to a coffee shop to find solace but the pandemic dealt that norm a blow. “I was really struggling last summer,” said Helt. “I was taking one of my hardest courses and needed someplace where I could study.”

A friend told Helt that there were study spaces available on campus. “I started coming and reserving the second floor of Dougan,” she said. “It’s been incredible.”

Helt doesn’t always come alone when she ventures to campus. “I’ve brought my kids so they can study with me,” she said. “They’ve kept me going. I’ve got to do it for them. It’s been so rewarding to watch them be proud of me and to see that light come on in their minds when they think about their own futures.”

It’s tempting to say that Helt has dropped anchor but anchors are heavy things that drag. Maybe she’s no longer on a ship but she’s still on a journey. This time her course is clear and her feet firmly set. Most days they can be found firmly pressed onto the floor of the Dougan building.

Return to 2021 Commencement: The Class of 2021

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / April 30, 2021
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or