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Cultural Connection: Recognizing Veterans Day with Mark Williamson

November 10, 2021

Veterans Day originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Unlike Memorial Day, Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans — living or dead — but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.

To continue our commitment to our values and promote a culture of inclusion — and to commemorate Veterans Day, the Ascend communications team spoke with Mark Williamson, director of talent acquisition and compliance, who shared a wonderfully detailed experience of his time serving in the U.S. Navy and its lasting influence in his personal and professional life.

Whether you are part of our team at Ascend Learning, a family member, loved one, colleague or peer — we want to express our heartfelt gratitude to all veterans for your sacrifice and service.

Ascend Comms (AC): Tell us about your role at Ascend Learning.
Mark Williamson (MW): My title is director of talent acquisition and compliance. I oversee our recruiting and talent acquisition efforts; plus, I help ensure that how we pursue and engage talent adheres to OFCCP laws [Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs]. It’s important to make sure both of those pieces [talent acquisition and compliance] are talking to each other.

AC: How did you get into this field?
MW: I actually served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years as a surface warfare officer (SWO), and during my last tour in the Navy, I recruited doctors, dentists, nurses and other health care professionals for the Navy. I went through recruiting training and a professional selling skills course to learn how to prospect, overcome objections and close a sale, so to speak, when recruiting talent for the Navy. I’d served in other roles and knew that a recruiting role might expose me to some things that I could translate into a career in corporate America.  

AC: What was your path into the Navy?
MW: My father was an enlisted [airman] in the Air Force in the 1950s for four years and transitioned into a career working for the VA hospital. That wasn’t necessarily the [main] influence, but I grew up with a certain order and discipline I think came naturally from his experience.

More specifically, there was a Navy ROTC unit [Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] at my high school in Aiken, S.C., led by Griggs Wheeler, a 1954 Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy captain. He sought me out the first week of high school and said, “I heard you were coming to the high school, and if what I’ve heard about you is true — you’ve been a straight A student, you come from a great family, and you’re involved in church and in the community — I think you could really be a great candidate for the Naval Academy.”

He made me a promise that if I joined his ROTC unit, he would be my personal mentor and help me make all the right moves to get into the academy. I talked it over with my parents and we saw that it was a good path to be set up for success and a unique opportunity to be guided by someone who’s been through the process. Long story short — Capt. Wheeler made his promise and helped me get into the academy, and I graduated and became a Naval officer.

AC: How did he help you in your journey toward the Naval Academy?
MW: To get into the one of the [military] academies, you’re required to get a congressional nomination. With his encouragement and guidance, I applied and was accepted into the page program in Washington, D.C. I worked in Senator Strom Thurman’s office for a summer and got my congressional nomination. Capt. Wheeler also taught me about taking initiative and helped me become a well-rounded individual — because the academies want smart, caring people who are active in the community and in extracurriculars. They look at the whole person.

AC: Have you kept in touch with Capt. Wheeler?
MW: We do [keep in touch]. He’s 90 years old and lives in Florida, and I check in with him about every six months. He’s one of the greatest people and influences I’ve ever encountered.

AC: Where else did your career in the Navy take you?
MW: Prior to attending the academy in Annapolis, Md., I went to the [Naval Academy] Prep School in Newport, R.I., a 10-month program designed to strengthen your academics. Once I was in the academy, I spent summers on ships going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Curaçao; on a submarine in Kings Bay, Ga.; flying T-34 mentor planes out of Pensacola, Fla.; and training with the Marines at The Basic School in Quantico, Va.

Post-academy, I went to the Surface Warfare Officers School and Diesel Engineering School back in Newport, followed by Chemical, Biological and Radiological Warfare School in Anniston, Ala., all in preparation for my first assignment as a DCA [damage control assistant], which is essentially is the person who oversees the effort to save a ship if it were ever damaged [in action]. My first ship was out of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I was on an LST (landing ship, tank), an amphibian ship that carried about 200 crew and 300 Marines.

I was on that ship for two years, during which time I did a Southeast Pacific cruise and visited about 18 countries, including Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Kingdom of Tonga. After that, I was on a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis, which did an around-the-world homeport shift from Norfolk, Va., to San Diego.

I flew from Honolulu to Bahrain, where I waited for the Stennis to get close enough for me to fly onto the flight deck in a mail plane. We stayed in the Persian Gulf for about 30 days, then to Hawaii and finally to San Diego — and that was my time at sea. Following that tour, I went back to my home state, where I was a recruiter until I transitioned out of the Navy.

AC: What was it like transitioning from military to civilian and professional life?
MW: I’d gotten engaged [and eventually married] and determined that I really didn’t want to live a life at sea with the family back home. I met my wife when I was a midshipman in Annapolis. She’s from San Antonio and had enlisted in the Navy with her older sister — who waited a year after high school graduation so they could go to boot camp together — and became a hospital corpsman. She and I decided I would transition out because the recruiting role might expose me to some things that I could translate into a career in corporate America, and I was fortunate enough that there were some opportunities that seemed to be synergistic with the path I’d chosen.

The first opportunity was with a company called Perot Systems, an IT services company started by H. Ross Perot, a former presidential candidate who also was a former Naval officer and Naval Academy graduate. Perot Systems’ chief human resources officer [at the time] was a West Point graduate who was looking for someone with the right experience to revamp their military recruiting program — that is, former military members who had recently transitioned out or active duty [members] soon to become civilians — so my military network really came into play. I led both military and college recruiting for about four years.

AC: How has your military experience had an impact on your family life?
MW: The thing I try to show our kids most is the military teaches you to be calm under pressure and make good decisions, and I try to live my life that way. I didn’t want to push something on my kids just because I liked it. I wanted to make sure it was something they wanted to do.

About a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter applied and was accepted into the Naval Academy Summer Seminar program, and subsequently applied and was accepted into both the Naval Academy Prep School and the Air Force Academy. She chose the Navy prep school and is now in Newport, going through the same 10-month program that I went through 30 years ago.

Our 15-year-old son recently went through an exercise through a school program called AVID [Advancement via Individual Determination] and brought a form to guide a discussion about college. During that conversation, he revealed that his first choice is the Naval Academy, followed by the Air Force Academy, or anything with an ROTC program — so it sounds like we might have another one who walks that similar path three years from now.

AC: Do you stay connected to any of your fellow servicemen or servicewomen?
MW: My best friends in the world are all friends I made at the [Naval Academy] prep school and at the Naval Academy. These are the men and women that are instrumental in my life to this day. We talk every week on the phone and go on vacations together. They’ve also influenced my kids in a big way because they [my kids] see that they started from the same place and endured the same experiences — and the natural fiber that makes up every one of them.

AC: What are ways people can show appreciation for veterans’ service?
MW: We are very appreciative of people who say, “thank you for your service,” but it’s also not necessary. This is a voluntary service — we all decided to go that path. I’m doing ok in life, but there are a lot of people who aren’t. I still worry about those shipmates out there who might not be doing so well. Give people words of encouragement. Do what you can to build them up. You never know what someone has gone through or is going through. The mantra in the Navy is “ship, shipmates, self,” meaning the Navy comes first, then your peers, and then yourself.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. Is there anything else you wish to share for the benefit of the community?
We have a number of veterans at Ascend who have all walked different paths and have done some cool and amazing things. As we mature as an organization, we’re looking at potentially formalizing a veteran recruiting program [in the future] so that we have a smooth path for veterans — including those with disabilities — to come into Ascend.

We don’t just want to look at one set of [characteristics]. We really are trying to be a diverse organization. Not all talent needs to look the same or be the same. If you’ve got someone who genuinely has great skills and could contribute, we would love to hear from you.