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Faces of the Boom: Ex-Marine feels at home in male-dominated field

After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than eight years, Emily Gathje now works as an airport operations manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston. Kathleen J. Bryan / Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Emily Gathje is used to working in a man’s world.

The St. Charles, Minn., native served with the U.S. Marine Corps for more than eight years before coming to North Dakota’s Oil Patch to work as an airport operations manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston.

“It’s no different than a military town. Instead of Marine Corps cammies, the men wear Carhartts and muddy boots,” Gathje, 29, said.

At just 18 – one of 76 high school graduates in her hometown of about 3,000 – she became a Marine, looking to get out of “small-town USA” and a chance to do something big.

Her early years on a dairy farm, one that had been in her family since the early 1900s, shaped her love for the outdoors and for challenges. From age 8 into her teens, she developed an interest in mechanics.

At the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., Gathje worked as a motor transport mechanic, a job that matched her interests and skills, she said.

Four years later, Gathje was stationed at nearby Marine Corps Air Station New River, where she applied her passion for aviation to her role as a crew chief for MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, doing mechanics and inspections, and assisting the pilots.

“A man’s world: It’s never bothered me, never thought anything of it. I’ve always been that way since working on a farm,” Gathje said.

In April 2012, enrolled at the University of North Dakota, where she received a degree in air traffic control.

Six months ago, Gathje landed in Williston, immersing herself in duties ranging from snow removal operations and wildlife control to aircraft rescue and firefighting at the airport, where traffic has soared with the oil boom and now includes direct flights to Houston.

Gathje said the job is a good fit for her, offers subsidized housing, allows her to be near her best friend, who lives in Watford City with her family. She the airport staff is a close-knit group.

“We all get along great and spend a lot of time together. We’re a family,” she said.

And if life isn’t busy enough, the self-described tomboy recently started her master’s in aviation science through a distance-learning program.

Although Gathje is only one of two women in airport administration, Airport Manager Steven Kjergaard said he views her as just another staff member.

“Aviation is a male-dominated environment. Emily brings the ability to do her job extremely well. She has very good attention to detail and very good interaction with customers,” he said.

Gathje says gender isn’t an issue.

“There’s opportunities for women everywhere, as long as they’re willing to do the work and have a good attitude.”