PAYSON, Ill. -- Dennis McDonald is proof that you can reach a goal if you don't give up.

McDonald is set to receive his bachelor's degree in computer science in two weeks at age 49.

That in itself is an accomplishment, but there's more: McDonald was among three University of Illinois Springfield students to recently participate in one of the National Cyber League's annual competitions.

During the two competitions, students deploy anti-hacking measures to defend real-time network attacks. McDonald finished in the top 15 percent of both competitions in which he participated. He ended finishing 342nd of 3,070 in the first and 362nd of 2,736 in the second.

"It takes persistence. The challenges are pretty difficult. You have an eight-hour window to get it done," McDonald said. "It is pretty tedious but really interesting work. I felt great about how I finished, especially since there was a lot on there I haven't been trained to do."

McDonald has deftly handled curveballs in his life for years.

The Barry native joined the U.S. Navy's nuclear power program after graduating from high school in 1985. When he returned to the area, he worked as an electrician and ran a computer store.

"I always wanted to get my degree in computer science, but things happen," McDonald said.

Having a family, he said, as well as running a business, left him with little time to devote to higher education. In the late 1990s, he started attending John Wood Community College on an Illinois Veteran Grant and GI Bill benefits.

"Then I got custody of my kids, so I put that on hold," he said.

Undeterred, McDonald would return to earn his associate degree from John Wood, maintaining a 3.93 grade-point average. He enrolled in the University of Illinois Springfield's computer science program online, and has managed a 4.0 grade-point average.

"It's been tough balancing working full time and going back to school," McDonald said, "but getting this degree is something I've always wanted to do."

During college, he has worked at Lock and Dam 21 in Quincy. He also has a 2-acre vineyard to manage.

"I'm always busy, but you just make time for what's important," McDonald said. "I feel accomplished. This has been a long time coming. It reinforces the idea that if you put your mind to something, you can do it."

McDonald said his aptitude for such activities stems from his role as a troubleshooter.

"It comes naturally to me to be a problem-solver," McDonald said. "I'm hardheaded, and I don't give up easily."

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