Former ChalleNGe Cadet Graduates from Coast Gaurd Academy
Please join us in congratulating Charles Wilson. He has graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and will be stationed in San Diego. The following interview with Charles was conducted just prior to him entering the Coast Guard Academy.
ChalleNGe Graduate Charts Course to Coast Guard Academy
by Abigail Wheeler
Charles Wilson has been making waves and getting noticed at every stop along his wisely charted course from Georgia's Fort Gordon Youth ChalleNGe Academy to the Coast Guard Academy. A 2001-01 graduate of Fort Gordon, Wilson capitalized on the scholarship opportunities made available to him there and went on to enlist in the Air National Guard and enroll in the Georgia Military College. The National ChalleNGe Institute (NCI) caught up with Chuck after seven weeks of Summer Swab at the Coast Guard Academy and at the outset of his first week of classes to find out how he transformed himself from high school dropout to Coast Guard cadet.
NCI: Tell us about your life before ChalleNGe. What made you pursue the program?
Wilson: I grew up in Savannah. I always had the potential to succeed in school but had a horrible way of dealing with authority. It wasn't that I didn't know what to do, but I always chose to do the opposite of what was expected of me. I don't know why. I'll never be able to answer that question.
I changed schools a lot in high school. My junior year, I started skipping classes, not going to school most of the time. I failed due to lack of attendance. I was hanging out with friends – sitting at home, not being productive.
NCI: What wasn't working for you in your life in traditional high school or at home?
Wilson: High school is socially dominated. Your social status can dictate how much fun you have there and how willing you are to go to class. I didn't get along with so many people there. My high school was in a bad part of town. There were a lot of kids there associated with gangs and only a small minority of the students had high hopes and determination to get through school with good grades.
It didn't seem like there was a defined goal in high school. Everyone had to do it and get through because it's what you're supposed to do. It didn't feel like you were working towards what you wanted to do, but what everyone else expected you to do. Not getting along with the majority of people there didn't help.
I can't put all the blame on the high school. Most of it was me and my attitude at the time. My philosophy was really screwed up.
NCI: How did you hear about ChalleNGe?
Wilson: A neighborhood friend attended Georgia-Fort Gordon and graduated with their first class ever. When my parents found out about not attending school and started getting upset, I told them about the program. At first, they thought it sounded like a horrible idea. They were used to my pattern of behavior where I'd say I wanted to do something, get a taste of it, not like it, and quit. That was what I had trained them to expect from me.
My parents thought I might not make it. That might have pushed me to make it even more.
NCI: What was your first reaction to the program?
Wilson: I remember being scared. The toughest part was that it was my first time being away from home for so long. It's wild – I didn't have a horrible relationship with my parents, but we weren't exactly getting along that well, either. They were probably pretty sick of me getting into trouble. The part I thought I would miss the least were the parts I missed the most. I remember so many phone conversations of being in tears because I was so happy to talk to my parents.
NCI: What made ChalleNGe so different from traditional high school?
Wilson: It was completely different. Discipline is the first thing that comes to mind. Although most of the tasks were very team orientated and I felt that I was part of the team, I also felt very responsible for my own success. The goal was close at hand and attainable enough that I knew what I was working towards. And really, everyone was working towards that same goal. It seemed more visible than the goal in high school.
I think a huge part is being pulled out of your normal environment, your home, your town. Being at ChalleNGe, away from your normal distractions, your normal friends, even your parents – the environment forces you to relearn how to function. Everything you've done before that time is eliminated and they teach you a more disciplined, new way of functioning. It levels everyone out. Everyone learns the same techniques and everyone has to work together to improve them.
NCI: What was the hardest thing about your five and a half months in residence?
Wilson: Definitely when you're stressed out, when you think you've been going through a lot, school, physical training, military training – the hardest thing is not being able to speak with the people you love. That isolation is a critical part of the training, though.
NCI: How did you deal with this challenge? What pulled you through?
Wilson: I had a good bunkmate. We learned each other's life stories. I also wrote letters home. I got as many people's addresses as I could find so that I would have that many letters coming right back at me.
NCI: How did you choose your placement after ChalleNGe? What pushed you towards that choice?
I applied for a scholarship at the end of my time at ChalleNGe. Fort Gordon arranged for cadets to take the ACT testing to qualify for a scholarship to the Georgia Military Academy. They also arranged for us to tour the Georgia Military College campus. Also in order to qualify for the scholarship, I had to be in the National Guard. That is the reason I enlisted in the Georgia Air National Guard.
Since my parents had doubts about my success, I didn't tell them I had applied for the scholarship. They found out at graduation. It definitely brought tears to my dad's eyes. I guess they kind of expected me to go to ChalleNGe and end up with a GED and be in nearly the same position that I was in when I left. They were pretty shocked to find out I had figured out a way to fund two years of college!
NCI: Tell us your story since graduating from ChalleNGe.
Wilson: I spent six months in training with the Air National Guard. I attended Basic Training and technical school. I worked at the local unit until I began classes at Georgia Military College (GMC).
I think at ChalleNGe, I learned more about being a follower – how to follow rules, how to manage my time, how to take care of myself. At GMC, I learned more about being a leader.
I completed two years at GMC, which is a junior college, and received an associate's degree in science, general studies. A month before I graduated, I received an offer to work for GMC as an admissions counselor, which turned out to be a really awesome job for a twenty year old to have. It really felt like a professional job. I got to travel around the state and speak with high school students and tell them about the same college scholarship that I'd received. I always told them about the Youth ChalleNGe Academy and how I ended up at GMC.
NCI: What motivated you to apply to the Coast Guard Academy?
Wilson: While I was enlisted with the Air National Guard, I volunteered for Hurricane Katrina relief with my unit and was sent to Biloxi, MS. I was really pumped up about going. I was thinking, "This is my moment, this is where I get to be a hero." I really had huge expectations for this deployment. When we got there, it wasn't quite so glorious. We were loading MREs, water, and ice into helicopters – they would take them to drop off points where people in the area could come and get what they needed.
About a week in, my command received a call that said there's a Chinese fishing boat that has been stuck under a bridge for about six days and had requested our help. We needed to bring water to them. My expectations rose, my adrenaline started pumping. We loaded up water and got on a bus, drove to the coast, and unloaded it – and the Coast Guard boat came up, took our water, and took off! I realized that they're doing all the fun, glory stuff right now. I decided I wanted to be a part of that.
After completing GMC and working as an admissions counselor, I began applying to schools to complete my four year degree. I applied to two local schools, to Texas A&M, and to the Coast Guard Academy. I got into Texas and the local schools and was planning on joining the cadet corps at Texas A&M in August. But in May, I got a call from CGA. I had been accepted. The assistant director of admissions called and told me that I was very out of the ordinary, being a high school drop out and an applicant from a different branch of the service. I was so impressed because it sounded like he knew me. It felt perfect. The next day, I accepted my appointment to the academy.
NCI: What are your goals for after you graduate from the Coast Guard Academy?
Wilson: Most of all, I would like to be a helicopter pilot. I'd like to be assigned someplace nice and tropical! My second duty of choice would be to be a boarding officer. The boarding officer is responsible for leading the Coast Guard team onto the vessel they're inspecting.
NCI: What is your best memory from ChalleNGe?
The best memory has to be after graduation was over and seeing my dad with tears of joy in his eyes, telling me he was proud of me.