‘I see myself as a blessing, not a curse’

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People tried to discourage Nicholine Azirh from pursuing her childhood dream of going to sea in ships. Some even tried dragging up an old maritime superstition that women brought bad mojo to seagoing vessels. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get her.

“I want to become the first female captain in my country, Cameroon,” she says. “It is like putting my name in the Guinness Book of Records forever.”

Azirh already has a first to her name. Now serving on the bridge of Celebrity Equinox, she’s the first female cadet to emerge from a new partnership between Celebrity Cruises and the Regional Maritime University (RMU) in Accra, Ghana.

Its genesis was a chance meeting in June during the U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders gathering at Florida International University. As a fellow, Azirh was in the audience on the last day of the program when Celebrity President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo spoke to the assembly.

“She made a wonderful presentation that caught every cell of my blood,” Azirh says. “Immediately I knew this is the reason I came to the USA, this is the person I wanted to see. It was like seeing the answer to my prayers.

“I got encouraged and believed that the time for me to integrate to a bigger platform has arrived and would enable me achieve my dream.”

She stood, spoke up, told Lutoff-Perlo about that dream and said she wanted to work for the Celebrity chief. It happens that Lutoff-Perlo is committed to raising the ratio of women to men on her ships’ bridges, shooting for 50-50. When she took the top job at Celebrity, women numbered 3 percent. Today it’s a little over 20 percent.

Azirh, who already held two maritime degrees and had shipboard experience, fit the bill perfectly. Lutoff-Perlo spoke to Capt. Patrik Dahlgren, Celebrity’s senior vice president of Global Marine Operations, who shares her mission for gender equality.

After the necessary meetings with the necessary officials, the partnership with RMU was born, and Azirh was in.

“The goal of our partnership with RMU is to inspire and disrupt the social norms that burden female officers in western African nations, such as Ghana,” Dahlgren says. “Nicholine is our pioneer cadet and a pioneer for women in her country.”

Lutoff-Perlo says she’s even more: “Nicholine isn’t just a new-hire, she symbolizes hope for women around the world who dream of working in a very male-dominated industry, she’s the face of our industry-leading partnership and she is an incredible example of Celebrity’s commitment to opening up the world.”

That’s a heavy mantle to wear for a diminutive woman, as was the onus of doubts, hostility, resistance and prejudices that beset Azirh’s quest to reach the bridge.

“But that never bothered me,” Azirh says, “because I have always seen myself as a blessing and not a curse. An environment can change for the better because of my presence.”

Untroubled by doubts, her sponsors are counting on it.