From the Coast Guard to Bethel

Jillian Carlson ’21 earned her environmental science degree a little later than traditional undergraduate students. But it was all part of the plan. Carlson, who grew up loving the outdoors, served four years in the Coast Guard on the Great Lakes, where she helped maintain navigational buoys and break ice in shipping channels. Her military service helped her pursue her goals to study at a faith-based university like Bethel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

February 04, 2022 | 9:45 a.m.

Jillian Carlson ’21

Jillian Carlson ’21 interned with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over the summer, helping do biological monitoring fish before returning them to waterways. They took counts of fish to track their condition and the waterways’ health. After earning an environmental science degree at Bethel, Carlson is pursuing her calling to help preserve the environment.

Though Jillian Carlson ’21 earned her degree a bit later in life than most undergraduate students, it was part of the plan for Carlson—mostly. “I always knew I wanted to go to Bethel,” she says. Carlson chose to follow her own path, first completing an associate’s degree and then spending four years in the U.S. Coast Guard in part for the educational benefits. But life brought a few unexpected turns.

Carlson developed an early love for the outdoors growing up in Big Lake, Minnesota, with environmentally conscious parents. Her passion for animals and preserving nature grew in high school when she traveled to the Bahamas and spent two weeks studying wild spotted Atlantic dolphins. She knew she wanted to pursue a career helping preserve nature and wildlife. But she first followed a desire to work and live on the water, and to serve her country. Her uncle had served in the Coast Guard, and she saw it as a pragmatic way to help pay for her dream to attend a private, faith-based university. And the Coast Guard offered the chance to serve in a smaller military branch than the Navy and to work with a smaller crew.

Carlson served as an E-3 seaman on the CGC Alder, a Coast Guard ice-breaker and buoy tender homeported in Duluth, Minnesota. The crew maintained navigational buoys in shipping channels and they broke ice in shipping channels in winter across all five Great Lakes. They also responded to SOS calls when needed. Carlson lived in close quarters and had to learn to get along with her roughly 50 crewmates. “It teaches you patience and how to work things out with your shipmates,” Carlson admits with a laugh. She describes it as a great learning experience that also gave her the chance to be out in nature.

Jillian Carlson ’21

Before finishing her education, Jillian Carlson ’21 followed a passion for preserving and serving her country. She served across the Great Lakes on the CGC Alder, which was homeported in Duluth, Minnesota. The crew maintained navigational buoys, broke the ice in shipping channels, and responded to SOS calls when needed.

But the work was tough. “It’s very physically demanding and you work all hours,” she says. “There’s no set schedule.” The crew often pulled up chains and large buoys to strap down on the deck, and as they broke ice floats with the boat, they also had to break ice off the boat by hand. It took a toll, as Carlson encountered injuries during her time on the Great Lakes. But she said that’s expected when you join the military, and it’s why you go through boot camp. “That’s the job and everyone expects it,” she says. And the crew often worked in winter storms on the Great Lakes. She recalls responding to an emergency call in 8- to 12-foot waves, which rocked the ship and sent items flying off shelves. Through it all, Carlson came to value hard work, and it helped her learn to manage her own time, be a self-starter, and value excellence even when no one is watching. “It makes you want to do your best work and put your put your best work out there,” she says.

In her third year in the Coast Guard, God’s hand interceded when Carlson and her husband, Doug, became pregnant with their son, Arthur. She remained on the ship into her second trimester before transitioning to a desk role and then to maternity leave. As she neared the end of her four years, she decided it was time to pursue her educational goals. “That was always something I knew I wanted to do,” she says. “It just seemed like the right time.”

Bethel was her first choice. She had heard great things about the university, as her brother-in-law and sister-in-law both attended Bethel. And Bethel featured an environmental science major. While it was weird to transition from the Coast Guard back to school, Carlson found support through a mentor in Bethel’s Office of Military and Veteran Services. “They helped me immensely not only navigate transitioning from the military but transitioning back into student life,” she says.

Jillian Carlson ’21 and her uncle Lt. Tim Martin

Jillian Carlson ’21 served as an E-3 seaman in the U.S. Coast Guard, and her uncle Lt. Tim Martin also served in the Coast Guard. Through her service, she earned benefits to apply to her education.

Carlson commuted about an hour to her classes at Bethel from Big Lake. And with Arthur, now 2, at home, her schedule largely revolved around her son’s schedule. She often timed her schoolwork around his naps and in the evenings, and she leaned on her husband’s support to get her schoolwork done. “There’s no way I would have graduated without him,” she says. “He made it so I would be able to find quiet time to work on homework.” She also faced unexpected challenges. She started at Bethel in summer 2020 as COVID-19 led to many courses being taught in a virtual instruction learning environment. But she was soon able to take more classes and labs in person.

Through the challenging and uncertain times of returning to school during the pandemic, Carlson says she had to trust that God was in control and leading her in the right direction. It taught her two things: patience and the need to let go of control, both of which she admits were challenging since she’s not usually patient and can be “a bit of a control freak.” She encouraged other nontraditional students finishing a degree to have strong time management. And she says they should take the time to have conversations with fellow students and professors after classes—even if they’re feeling rushed. She’s glad for the connections she made at Bethel even though she didn’t live on campus.

Carlson graduated with a degree in environmental science in December 2021, though she completed one final course over interim 2022. She enjoyed her time studying at Bethel, and she calls Professor of Biological Sciences Kenneth Petersen one of her favorite professors. “He really enveloped everything I was hoping for when I came to Bethel,” she says. “Because he teaches the environmental sciences classes, and also he just has this love for Christ.” She was inspired by how he teaches about being stewards of the earth from a Christian mindset, which was everything Carlson hoped for when coming to Bethel. Her faith continues to play a key role in her journey. “I wouldn’t be going into this field if I didn’t think it was something that had value and was something that God was calling me to,” she says.

God continues opening doors for Carlson. After interning Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over the summer, she is starting a job this winter working with Sherburne County. Her role will be to research and establish programs that prevent harmful wastes from entering landfills and reduce waste. “The culmination of my environmental studies degree and my military service is working for the government,” she says. Moving into her career, she wants to continue working in the public sector, but she doesn’t want to put a cap on what God may have planned.

Jillian Carlson ’21

Jillian Carlson ’21 and her crewmates work on the CGC Alder, a Coast Guard ship that helped maintain navigational buoys, break the ice in shipping channels, and respond to SOS calls.

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