U.S. Navy Officer Earns Master's Degree from LSU After a Decade Removed from the Classroom

Conquering numerous challenges over the past 10 years while serving in the U.S. Navy, Lt. Cmdr. James Gilford III recently achieved another milestone in his life, graduating from LSU with a master's degree in engineering science.

While the Newton, Texas, native was one of many outstanding students to receive a degree during LSU's 278th commencement exercises, held Aug. 3 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, his path to graduation was likely different than most.

In 2011, a decade removed from receiving his bachelor's degree, Gilford decided to take on yet another challenge – returning to the classroom to obtain his master's degree through the LSU Graduate School and LSU College of Engineering’s Donald W. Clayton Graduate Program in Engineering Science.

Gilford was able to pursue the degree thanks to the Navy Civil Engineering Corps, or CEC, Officer School's Advanced Education and Training Program.

Through this program, CEC officers have the opportunity to develop professional skills through courses offered by the CEC Officer School and Naval Facilities Contract Training Center. Gilford was selected for the opportunity to obtain a fully funded postgraduate education at a select civilian university in an engineering-related field.

"They only pick a certain amount of officers per year, based on responsibility, performance-based criteria and availability of slots," he said. "The good thing is that they send you wherever you want to go. I was able to do pretty well in my past deployments, so they selected me."

Service to country

Through the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps, Lt. Cmdr. James Gilford III was able to obtain his master’s degree from the LSU Graduate School and the LSU College of Engineering.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

Prior to obtaining his master's degree, Gilford spent nearly 10 years serving his country as an aviator, engineer and leader in the U.S. Navy.

Originally receiving his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Prairie View A&M University in 2001, Gilford held various internships and jobs, including working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, before his life changed after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

"After that, I told myself that I couldn't just sit on the sideline," he said.

Shortly thereafter, Gilford entered the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School program, or OCS, based in Pensacola, Fla., on a career track for aviation.

"(The recruiter) asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, 'I guess I'll fly,'" he said. "I'd never flown in an airplane before, except when I was younger."

Gilford was accepted into OCS with a placement guarantee for aviation. He graduated from the program and was commissioned as a naval officer in August of 2002. After then completing the nearly two-year Navy aviation training program, he received his wings – designating him as a naval aviator – in 2004. He later joined his first operational squadron assignment with Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 42, based in Mayport, Fla. There, he served as a ground safety officer, ground training officer and volunteer coordinator.

"They teach you how to fight the aircraft there – to fight and fly at the same time," he said of the squadron. "That was a very interesting tour. We did independent ops and even some oil platform defense."

As a naval aviator, Gilford has logged more than 900 flight hours, completed more than 50 missions in theater – including areas such as Iraq and the Horn of Africa – and more than 2,000 deck landings on more than 18 different platforms.

With that experience under his belt, Gilford chose to change career paths within the Navy, making a lateral transfer in 2008 from aviation back to his engineering roots with the Navy's CEC. A staff corps with officers who are professional engineers and architects, acquisitions specialists and Seabee Combat Warfare Officers, the Navy CEC is responsible for executing and managing the planning, design, acquisition, construction, operation and maintenance of the Navy's on-shore facilities.

Before his transfer selection, Gilford was sent into temporary active duty, working with the public works department at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. While there, he successfully resolved multiple unforeseen site conditions with temporary administrative spaces in support of the $16 million relocation of the Navy's Engineering Operations Center to Jacksonville from Charleston, S.C.

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In 2009, after serving a voluntary 12-month active duty tour with Navy Provisional Detainee Battalion 5 in Camp Bucca, Iraq, Gilford returned to the U.S. and began the Navy CEC's Officer School. He graduated from the program, as well as the Navy's Expeditionary Combat Skills program. In August 2009, he accepted an assignment as the Alfa 6 Company commanding officer for the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7, a Navy Seabee battalion based out of the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss.

Making the decision

Gilford said the list of possible locations where he would pursue his postsecondary education included LSU's Graduate School and the LSU College of Engineering, as well as similar programs at the University of Florida, the University of Alabama and the University of Texas.

"I looked at the overall program at each university and what it had to offer from a professional standpoint," he said. "Most campuses offer just construction management as far as a degree plan, where you just take classes and you're not doing a thesis."

In researching LSU's graduate program, Gilford said he contacted Craig Harvey, associate professor with tenure in the LSU College of Engineering's Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering.

"He's retired Air Force, so he knew my situation," Gilford said of Harvey. "I told him I was interested in coming to LSU. He put my name out there to several professors, and (Performance Contractors Distinguished Assistant Professor) Marwa Hassan selected me as a candidate."

The biggest reasons Gilford said he chose LSU's Graduate School and the LSU College of Engineering were because the university allowed him to focus on a master's program in engineering science, which opened to him a larger realm of possibilities, and that the university could help him graduate on a required accelerated track.

"I had to obtain my master's in a year, instead of two years as most people do," he said. "The Navy has a list of schools that say that they can help you get this done in a year, and LSU is one of those. LSU was at the top of my list."

Gilford said that his thesis, "Microencapsulation of Self-Healing Concrete Properties," involved research on different methods to apply self-healing agents to cracks that originate in concrete.

"It required a lot of research and a lot of time," he said. "But if you're devoted to learning, doing something well, and doing something different and challenging, it's a very rewarding experience."

LSU's 278th Commencement

As one of his final duties as chancellor, Michael V. Martin presided over the commencement exercises, where 686 students received degrees and alumnus and actor Michael Papajohn delivered the commencement address.

It's that devotion that Gilford said drew him to LSU for his master's studies and, with the help of the Graduate School and College of Engineering, drove him to complete the program in a year's time.

"The program here pushes you to your peak performance, and then adjusts to where you are," he said. "I pushed pretty hard, so it was definitely a great learning opportunity for me. There were many different levels of structure, and it was very well organized. If I had any issues, I knew exactly who to talk to. They worked with me on getting this done in a year, and I'm very appreciative of that. We had our doubts at times, but they really bent themselves to make it happen. I'd definitely recommend this program to others."

With his master's degree in hand, Gilford will now move into the next phase of his life, handling public works, engineering and planning for the operations department at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

Passing the test

Already balancing a military career with being a father to his daughter, Katelyn, Gilford said that returning to the university setting after a decade away was a true test of his resolve.

"You can either go the easier way or take the more challenging route. I chose the more challenging route, and I'm glad that I did," he said. "Coming here and doing what I did really showed me that I can go out and still achieve great things in academia. I had to ask myself if I could get back into that seat and do well. I think I did that."

Gilford said that while living in Baton Rouge, he enjoyed what both LSU and the local community had to offer.

"I really liked being at LSU," he said. "The campus is very nice, and the camaraderie here is great. Of course, I really enjoyed the football team's performance last season, and even took my parents to a few games. Beyond LSU, there are so many great things to do around here as well. I've enjoyed my time here tremendously."

Gilford said that he has not ruled out the option of pursuing a doctoral degree or possibly returning to LSU to achieve that goal.

"I would like to get my doctorate and my Professional Engineer licensure someday," he said. "We tried to convince my superiors to let me stay here and go for my doctorate, but they have other plans for me right now. The Navy has all types of programs to help fund your education. It would take some work, but I know it can happen."