Lexington, Virginia • February 21, 2011
After 20 years in the Marine Corps, Staff Sergeant Curtis Wilson, 38, finds himself in a very different environment — at the small elite law school at Washington and Lee University in the small rural town of Lexington, Va.
Surprisingly, he has found plenty in common between his former life and his new role as a first-year law student.
When W&L sent Wilson a letter inviting him to apply to the law school, he had to do some quick research. He soon came across details that seemed familiar and appealing: small class sizes, engaged faculty and, most importantly, the honor system. "The honor system was a major reason I came to W&L," he said.
With the Marines, Wilson said, "it breaks down into honor, courage and commitment. Honor yourself, your family and your corps. Have the courage to do what's right at all times. Be committed to whatever you put your mind to. That's kind of the same values as at W&L.
"Also, although W&L is obviously a lot smaller, it has the same camaraderie and cohesiveness I loved in the Marines where everybody is helping you to succeed. I always describe the Marines as like having 100,000 brothers and sisters, with a couple of crazy uncles thrown in, and a mom and dad looking over your shoulder."
Wilson said he decided to enlist in the marines to gain some training, see the world and complete his college education. "Then I thought I'd go on to do other things. But I didn't realize I'd love it so much," he said. "I got to do things outside the norm and see different ways of life. It opened my eyes to how the world really is and how different cultures see things. Even in the roughest, scariest moments I didn't ever regret being in the military."
He spent his first six years in the artillery, including serving in Desert Storm and in Somalia, but then re-enlisted and spent the next 16 years as a paralegal in the judge advocate's office. "I had already spent one year in that office, and I really enjoyed it. The attorneys kept telling me I was in the wrong line of work and should switch to law. So I did."
During his time in service Wilson also earned a degree in criminal justice with a minor in sociology, although it took him many years. "I had to drag it out because of deployments and moving around, but the Marine Corps has agreements with different colleges so you can continue from one school to the next which makes it much easier," he said.
Now the Yellow Ribbon Program has enabled him to pursue a law degree and eventually a career in public interest law. "It's a godsend. It really is," he said. "And W&L is one of the better schools when it comes to the Yellow Ribbon Program because they do offer so much. It works out that all my education is pretty much paid for with the post 9/11 GI Bill and what W&L offers."
While the post 9/11 GI Bill pays up to the highest public, in-state undergraduate tuition fees, the Yellow Ribbon Program allows degree-granting institutions to form a voluntary agreement with the Veterans Administration to fund tuition expenses that exceed that amount. The institution can contribute up to 50 percent of those expenses, and the VA will match the same amount as the institution. W&L provides Yellow Ribbon scholarships to seven undergraduate and two graduate students each year. The program was included in the new GI Bill at the insistence of former Sen. John W. Warner, a Washington and Lee alumnus of the Class of 1951.