Rear Adm. Melissa Bert, USCG, knew her roommate Joanna Nunan had it all figured out during the first summer she stepped foot on the U.S. Coast Guard Academy campus.
Before an obligatory room check by upperclassmen, Nunan convinced Bert, now judge advocate general and chief counsel of the Coast Guard, that their entire room needed to be cleaned with furniture polish. Unfortunately, when the student checking their room climbed on top of the desk to check the top of a bookcase for dust, he slipped and fell off the slick surface, nearly careening out into the hallway.
While this was a source of suppressed giggles from the roommates, it also served as a microcosm of Nunan’s career in the Coast Guard. Her attention to detail and commitment to problem solving led the MOAA member to the rank of rear admiral before she retired in 2022.
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In December 2022, U.S. Maritime Service Vice Admiral Nunan took on a new challenge as the first female superintendent at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, N.Y. The historic institution has taken a public relations black eye with multiple allegations of sexual assault at sea and of a toxic on-campus atmosphere.
Nunan’s operational and personnel experience should serve her well in her new role, having served as a former commander of the 9th Coast Guard District and the Coast Guard’s assistant commander for human resources. And as a former member of the Coast Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention, Response, and Recovery committee with Bert, Nunan is well-versed with these topics.
“Rear Admiral Nunan is uniquely prepared to lead and strengthen USMMA on every front,” said Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, USN (Ret), administrator for the Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, at the time of Nunan’s November 2022 appointment. “She understands both the critical role USMMA plays in our economic and national security and the organizational transformations that are essential to ensuring USMMA prepares students in a safe and respectful environment to excel in a maritime industry undergoing rapid change.”
Bert said Nunan is “the best person for that position. I can’t even imagine anyone else doing as good a job as she’ll do.”
In the past few years, several female midshipmen have brought forth sexual assault claims while they were serving their Sea Year. In addition to the allegations, a 2022 CNN story reported that the university’s policies presented “significant barriers to reporting sexual assault.”
Nunan said her administration, which comprises several females, will be updating policies related to diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment and incorporating training in those areas both for cadets, faculty, and staff.
“We are looking at how to put these concepts — diversity, inclusion, equity, preventing sexual assault or harassment — throughout our whole program so it’s not just a standalone,” Nunan said. “It is incorporated into classroom time [and] athletics.”
Nunan also hopes to find more creative ways to tell the midshipmen’s stories to potential recruits. USMMA’s 2026 graduating class is only 15% female after being as high as 26% in the 2023 class.
“The midshipmen are probably the best testament to what it’s like here,” Nunan said. “… A lot of women have told me that we have had an amazing time at sea. We want to make sure we can tell those stories.”
Before Nunan was appointed, the Maritime Administration and USMMA created EMBARC (Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture), sexual assault and sexual harassment prevention and response standards that all commercial vessel operators should implement before carrying cadets from USMMA for training purposes. So far, 14 companies have enrolled in the program.
Often the only woman on a cutter early in her Coast Guard career, Nunan has a history of looking out for her fellow women in uniform. In her human resources role, Nunan changed a regulation regarding bulkhead size that allowed women to compete for spots on the legacy inland construction and buoy tender fleets. She also made it easier for women to serve on icebreaking tugs when she served as the commander of the 9th District.
Bert believes Nunan’s positive attitude and willingness to work with others will help restore the luster of this proud academic institution. Since its founding 80 years ago, USMMA has played a vital role in not only American commerce but also the nation’s defense. Graduates can choose to serve active duty military for five years or in the reserves for eight years while working five years in the maritime industry.
“[Nunan] sees the good in everyone and can also see the silver lining in any cloud,” Bert said. “She’s not phony. She’s not being superficial. She can look at a situation, pull it apart, and take what’s good and dismiss what’s bad.”
Nunan, whose grandfather was a World War II naval officer, pointed out that Merchant Marine cadets were killed in that war. “That [fact] provides the basis for who these midshipmen are and what kind of dangers they are willing to put themselves in, even to this day. And they work super hard. I am in awe of what they do in four years.”