“My mom was struggling financially. And I made a commitment privately that I would not be a financial burden to her. So what I started doing at 13 or so is thinking about how I would be able to pay for college on my own.”
From a young age, Nakeisha Hills of Passaic, N.J., had lofty goals. In grade school, while most kids her age were concerned with going to the mall or simply getting by, Nakeisha was busy mapping out her future. She wanted to be able to help her mother, a single mom, pay for her and her two sisters’ educations. Through talking to teachers and high school students, Nakeisha discovered the Military could help her achieve that goal. So, as a first step, Nakeisha joined the Navy Junior ROTC program when she entered high school.
“I stayed in [the Junior ROTC program] for the entire four years I was in high school…. By my senior year I was actually the person in charge of the entire unit.”
While Nakeisha excelled in the Navy Junior ROTC program, one of her instructors, a retired Coast Guard helicopter pilot, discussed her post-high school options with her.
“My instructor mentioned to me that the Coast Guard was a lot smaller and that women had no gender exclusions as opposed to the other Services.”
Her instructor also mentioned that the Coast Guard was seeking recruits from diverse backgrounds. As an African-American woman, Nakeisha found this information interesting. She began researching opportunities with the Coast Guard, as well as colleges.
In collaboration with a recruiter and college advisor, in the fall of 1990, Nakeisha enrolled in East Stroudsburg University and, in the summer of 1991, attended Basic Training as a Coast Guard reservist.
”[Boot Camp] was scary… I wasn’t a good runner. I was a swimmer, but I wasn’t a lifeguard-level swimmer. So I was kind of fearful… but I knew that it was something that I wanted more than I feared.”
Overcoming those fears, in addition to fulfilling her personal commitment, made graduation an emotional experience.
“I finally was able to tell my mom that I wasn’t going to be this financial burden to her… I would have my own salary… I would be able to help her.”
Nakeisha served as a Coast Guard reservist while finishing her college degree. She drilled one weekend each month at Governors Island in New York, working as a yeoman at Support Center New York.
Upon finishing her degree, Nakeisha attended Officer Candidate School. Becoming an active-duty officer was something Nakeisha always knew she wanted because it would mean increased leadership, salary, experience and training. That’s not to say, however, that going into Officer Candidate School didn’t make Nakeisha nervous.
“It was nerve-wracking, again, because I was no Mark Spitz [Olympic swimmer] ... But I was determined to complete it.”
Nakeisha’s determination and commitment carried her through Officer Candidate School and, ultimately, a military career currently in its 18th year. Today, Nakeisha serves as the chief of contingency planning and force readiness at the Coast Guard’s Sector Delaware Bay, facilitating emergency response preparedness. She and her staff maintain plans that incorporate Coast Guard assets and all of the resources other local support agencies bring to the table.
“Primarily we are the unit’s arm of outreach to other agencies… like the New Jersey State Police or Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection… so that we can collaboratively respond to an incident on the Delaware River and Bay.”
It is a career Nakeisha finds both rewarding and practical. Through the Coast Guard, she is able to serve her country, and at the same time, take advantage of unique military benefits such as job security, excellent health care and tuition assistance. In fact, with the help of the Military’s Post-9/11 GI Bill, Nakeisha is currently obtaining her master’s degree in strategic communication. It’s an education she plans on applying during her extended military career. Not only did the Coast Guard allow Nakeisha to go above and beyond her commitment to financially help her mother, it also satisfies her desire to play a role in something larger than herself. That’s a role Nakeisha hopes to play for a long time.