Life Below Zero
By Jenna Marina
ORLANDO, Fla. (Nov. 4, 2016) — When Tracey Mertens ’92 was a hospitality management student at UCF in the early 1990s, she never envisioned a life where she would be professionally trained in night vision goggles usage. Or winter hazard protection.
Yet, today she lives in Kodiak, Alaska, well-educated in both thanks to her auxiliary public affairs specialist role with the U.S. Coast Guard. She has immersed herself within the team, learning anything she can, to better reflect the Coast Guard’s impact through her writing, photography and social media duties.
Merten credits UCF for giving her the foundation she needed to forge her own path to success that led her to opening her own seven-bedroom specialized rental property, managing a public relations and marketing firm and volunteering more than 4,500 volunteer hours over the last three years with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It’s an exceptional school. You can tell the difference between someone who has had that good college foundation and who hasn’t,” said Mertens, one of the first recipients of the Harris Rosen Hospitality Management Scholarship. “Finding your place in the world has everything to do with using that experience at UCF to reach out, touch, talk to and traverse as many pieces as you can.”
Over the last two decades of her professional career, Mertens has accumulated an extensive list of varied experiences. She worked on a ranch in Wyoming. Trained with an equestrian center. Sampled many professional roles at Arabian Nights. Was part of the team that set up the dinner show attraction American Gladiators Orlando Live. Served as domestic violence counselor. Worked within child protective services. Owned a consulting company.
“I have a weirdo resume. It’s got parts and pieces on it that people go, ‘You did what?! How did you get there?’” she said.
Tracey Mertens ’92 (photographer) on the job for the U.S. Coast Guard
She did it by following her passions, and that’s the message she wants to make sure she passes on to other soon-to-be Rosen graduates. That’s why despite the 5,000-plus miles between Kodiak, Alaska, and Orlando, Mertens is a mentor with the college.
The mentor program launched in 2011 and has seen tremendous growth in recent years. Mertens and her mentee, Erinn Drury, are one of 165-and-counting matches within the program this year.
Their match seems dictated by fate. Drury can’t stop thinking about moving to Alaska after graduation.
Drury, a Satellite Beach native, was a freshman in 2013 when she attended a career fair for Rosen. There, she met a representative from Princess Cruises who served routes in Alaska. She was intrigued and proceeded to spend last May through October working at a lodge south of Denali.
She spent eight weeks of fall away from campus, juggling online classes with limited internet access and pulling off straight As by the end of the semester.
Like her mentor, Erinn Drury wants to live in Alaska after graduating Rosen College of Hospitality Management.
“Never seeing mountains, never seeing snow, never experiencing the 22 hours of daylight or darkness, it was completely life-changing for me. When I left, I never stopped thinking of Alaska,” she said. “When you test the limits and get outside your comfort zone, it’s when happiness happens.”
When Drury applied for a mentor, she wasn’t sure who she would end up with. So she was thrilled that Mertens was someone she could relate to so easily. Their first phone conversation lasted two hours.
“I could hear in her voice the passion that she has,” Drury said. “How you get from UCF business hospitality to the Coast Guard is incredible. [She showed me] you don’t have to keep yourself within the boundaries of what the norm is. You can push yourself.”
In addition to running her PR business and award winning rental property, Guardian Landing, Mertens has been designated as the Kodiak Air Station’s official photographer and social media spokesperson.
Her photos have been published in various publications and even on the national U.S. Coast Guard Instagram’s account.
Her work to provide community awareness has been well received. She claimed second place in the national 2014 JOC Alex Haley Awards for Outstanding Individual Achievement, the Coast Guard’s highest recognition in public affairs. Additionally, she earned the national Coast Guard History Foundation 2013 Heritage Award for Individual Achievement.
Photo by Tracey Mertens ’92
“The search and rescue team’s mission is such a nice, clean line of positive intent to serve humanity. I’m very honored to be a part of that,” she said.
As for Drury, she can’t wait to move to Alaska and start her own professional adventure. And she hopes to meet Mertens in person one day.