The Coast Guard and my circle of education

High school and the Coast Guard.

Wow. What memories. I sucked at high school, which is why its funny that I teach today.

I was an average student. I made good grades in English and history because I enjoyed those subjects, and I got by in science and math because I didn’t care for those subjects. That’s about all I can say, honestly.

Shortly after graduation in 1987, I joined the US Coast Guard. Eventually, I would earn a master’s degree and work as a teacher. But the in-between is what matters most.


In May 1987, I graduated from Bartlett High School with absolutely no acclaim. I enrolled right away in the University of Memphis, then Memphis State University (Hey, the name change had nothing to do with tuition, they said. Don’t look at the 10 percent increase that year.).

I remember my meeting with the advisor. If you want to call the person that. There was a room full of freshmen. I arrived at my appointed time and waited. To this day, I remember waiting almost 3 hours. The advisor told me to take English, Science, and Math. I could choose from a list of subjects for a couple of electives.

That was my advisement. I was with the adviser for maybe five minutes.

There were no discussions of degrees, what I might want to do with my life, programs, etc. Not that I’d have had answers to any of those if I were asked.

With no goal, no end in sight, and frankly, no understanding of why I was taking anything, the end result was pretty obvious.

By the Spring 1988 semester, Memphis wasn’t sure they wanted me back. And since I’d earned about 12 of the 30 hours I’d attempted, I didn’t see much of a point in going back.

May 1988

For all intents and purposes, I’d flunked out of the University of Memphis. To this day, I swear I did not know about trade/vocational/community colleges. I don’t remember high school guidance discussing these options with me.

So, on May 23, 1988, I left Memphis for Cape May, New Jersey, and the US Coast Guard boot camp.

I loved my time in the Coast Guard. I learned much – more than Bartlett High School or the University of Memphis ever taught me. Some of what I learned was practical to the job at hand. I learned to navigate, shoot, first aid, and drive a ship. I also learned how to do laundry, sewing, and other practical life skills like balancing a checkbook.

My enlistment was a period of great joy and tons of fun. It was also a period of development.

I think I grew up in the Coast Guard. I was never an immature kid, but I know that after four years, in July 1992, I left the service a different person than I went in.

University of Memphis, Redux

Things were different. I was using the GI Bill. I made all As. I still wasn’t sure what degree program to pursue, but I felt better about why I was there and what I was doing.

But there was a problem. My time in the Coast Guard gave me many things. One of those was an oversensitive lack of tolerance for bull shit.

When I left the Coast Guard, I had a letter outlining the college credits I should be awarded and why. There were credits in physical education, criminology from maritime law enforcement school, math and navigation science from navigation school, and the list went on and on.

In my second semester back, Spring 1992, and I’m appealing a decision by the UofM to only grant 2 credits, both in physical education and both unneeded, based on my Coast Guard service. I remember to this day, a gentleman sitting across a desk telling me the appeal would be denied. Two credits were going to be it.

“Your time in the Coast Guard was wasted,” he told me. Wasted. That was the University of Memphis opinion in 1993/1994.

My BS meter went off; I offered a two-word response and left. I’ve not stepped foot on the campus of the University of Memphis since.

Fast forward

No degree, my career went well. I progressed steadily from a reporter to an editor to a group editor to a publisher. Eventually – and with no degree – I was the executive editor and general manager of a daily newspaper during a tumultuous time of disruption.

No, I didn’t have a degree, but my career as a newspaper editor went quite well for a long time.

But there were … things. My niece pointed out that I had no degree and was doing fine. The three girls I’d eventually adopt. How could I push the importance of education on them, while not pursuing it for myself?

For me, opportunity struck through my job. I was running the Daily News Journal, a daily newspaper in Murfreesboro, TN, the home to Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU was a major advertiser, and they frequently ran ads talking about degree completion programs for veterans. Finally, in part because of my family and in part because of the fact that if I didn’t leave newspapers there was a good chance newspapers were going to leave me, I inquired.

The reaction from MTSU was unbelievable. For the first time in my life, I felt there was a tangible value – as in, “You did this, so we’ll give you this” – to my time in the Coast Guard. MTSU valued that time; they valued what I learned and worked hard to transfer that learning into credits.

The light was visible. A couple of years later, in my 40s, I earned my bachelor’s degree and will always be True Blue.

Journalism and I did part ways. I became a teacher, which is kind of ironic given my college path and my high school performance. I earned a master’s degree in education and now hold a professional teaching license, an occupational teaching license, and an administrative (principal’s) license.

So what?

With a great deal of experience and clarity, I have learned that college is not always the path. I have also learned sometimes it is the path, just not immediately.

But I also learned that my trouble early on with school wasn’t with my intelligence or the University of Memphis. It was with my lack of knowledge about what I wanted. I personally struggle to operate without a goal. Going to college “to see” didn’t work for me. And nobody took the time to explain to me how taking biology – yet again – or more English (after four years of honors English) was going to help me accomplish some as-of-yet unidentified goal in the future.

Today I tell students there are many paths to many goals. I tell them I understand if they don’t want to go to college or if they don’t understand why they should. We talk in terms of tangible goals. Where do you want to be one year after high school graduation? Five years? Ok, now how do we get there?

I tell them college may come later. Online courses make it easier than ever to “go back.” I never advise against college. Too much good that can come from it.

But I think the most important lesson learned from my story is that at 17 or 18, it is OK to not know. It is ok to feel like you want a trade school, community college, or an apprenticeship.

And to understand that there are great four-year programs out there that they can turn to later in life when their goals have a bit more clarity.