For this 30-Year Coast Guard Veteran, Completing His Bachelor’s Degree Meant So Much More than Promotion Through the Ranks

In need of a job and without specific plans for his future, Dennis J. Wilson elected to enlist in the Coast Guard when he graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Va. Fascinated with becoming a Drug Enforcement Officer, Wilson quickly learned there was no path for him without a bachelor’s degree and he found himself starting out instead with basic seamanship and manual tasks.

Throughout the next three decades, Wilson was attached to an array of units and commands, including tours aboard two Coast Guard cutters. He conducted law enforcement boarding on the seas including safety, fisheries, human and drug trafficking, and search and rescue. He eventually specialized in Human Resources and Human Capital Management, first as a policy writer and later as resources manager. With his service spanning a number of global events, Wilson served in Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, the Global War on Terrorism (9-11) and Hurricane Katrina and Wilma responses.

Dennis Wilson portrait

The child of an Army family, Wilson understood military life and the challenges that came with it. “I found it difficult to maintain relationships outside the military because civilian life became a foreign subject for me as the years went by,” he shared, noting he felt this most during deployments at sea. But these shared experiences also made fostering camaraderie and long-time friendships within the ranks possible. And meeting people who honored the military or longed to be a part of it made his service rewarding. “After hearing someone say thank you, it made me proud to represent all the men and women who've sacrificed so much for the nation,” Wilson said.

Wilson knew his continued career growth was dependent upon his education, but he struggled to complete his degree. “I could not see a clear path,” he said. With on an off attendance, Wilson eventually completed an associate degree through Northern Virginia Community College. When he finished, he felt ready to “jump right into a structured bachelor’s degree program.” On the hunt for a program from a respected school that also worked with his schedule, Wilson found the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (BIS) program at UVA’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies to be realistic in its structure, timing and amount of advising offered.

“What I loved most about the program was the interaction it promoted between professors and students. Every day, I looked forward to class because the topics were interactive, and participating was just fun,” Dennis recalled. He also loved “how each professor seemed to enjoy being in class with the students. It was a family atmosphere that made me want to be there.”

Participating in classes covering emotional intelligence, writing and mental disorders encouraged him to look at some of his own behaviors. “I could focus on myself,” he said, “discovering my emotional triggers, stressors and behaviors through the classes, which I rarely do.”

He saw improvement in his career as well. While he started the BIS program as a Chief Warrant Officer, the ability to point to steady progress toward a degree showed leadership he was serious about education and earned him two promotions to Lieutenant and then Lieutenant Commander. “I proved my commitment to lifelong learning with my progress through an elite program,” Wilson stated.

Wilson retired from the Coast Guard on August 1, 2023 after 30 years of honorable service. “I started in the Coast Guard as an E-1 and retired as an O-4. Some in the military community would label me as a Mustang—a person who was both enlisted and an officer.” But his upward trajectory didn’t stop there. The Coast Guard immediately hired Wilson as a Civilian Federal Employee at the level of GS-14. (The highest GS level attainable is 15.) “I was able to put almost completion of my degree on my resume and was hired,” he shared proudly. “During my onboarding, the hiring manager indicated that completing my degree and attending UVA BIS were two major items that stood out in my resume.”

SCPS thanks you for your service, Dennis!