Taking Control

Jack HillisJack Hillis knew one day that he would have to deal with life and career after his service as a U.S. Navy submariner. He saw extending his education at Brenau with an M.B.A. in project management as a way to navigate the uncertain waters of civilian life.

For U.S. Navy submariner Jack Hillis, there was “a pattern” to his life: three months in port followed by three months at sea patrolling in waters off the coast of who knows where.

Hillis, a 1996 graduate of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in workforce development and training. In the Navy, however, he served aboard Trident submarines based at the U.S. Navy base in Kings Bay, Ga., as a strategic electronics technician working on navigation systems. That meant the senior chief helped steer underwater – and without detection – literally boatloads of nuclear missiles, ready for action if it came to that, to wherever they needed to go. He served aboard three ships in all, including his last one, the U.S.S. Rhode Island.

But as patterns go, that three-months-in-port- three-months-at-sea pattern is a tough one around which to build other aspects of your life – like maintaining a stable family and enrolling in a university for an advanced degree to bolster career prospects either in or out of the Navy.

However, Hillis is not one to allow mere breaks in a calendar knock him off course. In 2002, he enrolled for classes at Brenau’s Kings Bay “campus,” located on the submarine base, and in 2009 completed a Master of Business Administration degree in project management. Now retired from the Navy after 20 years of service, Hillis is the project management section supervisor at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Sykesville, Md., where he and the team of eight people under his supervision work on strategic systems engineering studies for the Navy and the U.S. Air Force.

The Port Huron, Mich., native credits the flexibility of the Brenau program for his ability to navigate through it to a new career outside the Navy.

“When I first started, I really was still making patrols on a submarine, gone for months at a time,” he recalls. “Whenever I would pull into port, I would find out where we were in the semester and check to see if there were any classes being offered that I needed for my degree. Then I would figure out my class load for the time that I was going to be in port and try to fit in as much as I could.”

Ironically, the very nontraditional student Hillis regards his time at Brenau as, well, let’s let him tell it:

“I completed my undergraduate degree in a traditional setting,” he says. “Since the Brenau operation at Kings Bay is on the base, I thought initially that might hinder us in the real world because we weren’t getting the general population input.”

That, however, was not the case. The Kings Bay student population is a mix of active-duty military personnel, civilian employees, family members of military and civilians at the base, and people from the surrounding southeast Georgia-northeast Florida community. Faculty and administrators are all non-military and include in the business program, among others, a lawyer who once worked in one of the largest entertainment and media conglomerates in the world and former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

“In the end, I was very happy that I chose Brenau,” says Hillis. “It gave me everything I needed to succeed in the long term.”

The project management M.B.A. track, Brenau’s most popular program at Kings Bay was “a natural segue for someone in the military,” he adds. “That was crucial for me when I was on a submarine where there is a 33 percent turnover every time you pull into port. “ However, it is also crucial in all careers and professions.

“Project management is something we do on a daily basis from the time we get any type of leadership through the rest of our career,” he says. “The Brenau degree program was especially relevant to me because it gave me tools for effectively working with all types of people on all types of projects. The project management program helps you learn how to get what you need from the team that is available to you.”

The submariner’s life also plays havoc with consistency in family life. He and his wife Krista have two sons: Jackson, 16, and Brendan, 10.  However, rather than tell his two kids,, “while I’m gone, do your homework,” when he was home, “rather than sitting in front of a TV telling them they need to study or read a book, they would see me studying or reading. It was the whole lead by example thing.”

Krista was part of that positive behavior modeling process, too. Now a fulltime substitute teacher in Maryland schools, Krista worked on a master’s degree in education from Armstrong Atlantic university in Savannah while Jack completed his Brenau degree.

“It was a struggle for the last 18 months of (my Navy career) because we were both taking a full course load,” Hillis says. “But we knew that it would ultimately pay major dividends.”

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