Stanford students learn about military culture, get life lessons from top military officials

The National Security Affairs Fellows Mentorship Program pairs Stanford undergraduates with high-ranking members from the U.S. armed forces to give students a personal perspective into military life and issues.

On a fall weekend on the Stanford campus, one can find students doing a wide variety of activities: studying, hiking, or if they are a student in the National Security Affairs Fellows Mentorship Program, watching former U.S. Secretary of State and distinguished Hoover fellow George Shultz cut a birthday cake with a sword.

Lt. Col. Paul Krattiger meets with undergraduates Aidan J. Fay and Megan Haines.

As part of the Hoover Institution National Security Affairs Fellows Mentorship Program, Col. Paul Krattiger meets with undergraduates Aidan Fay and Megan Haines. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Shultz was honoring the U.S. Marine Corps birthday, a special occasion that is commemorated every Nov. 10 in American military communities across the world – and on this particular day, in a conference room at the Hoover Institution. Students in the mentorship program were invited to experience the event’s many traditions, which included acknowledging fallen soldiers and recognizing historic milestones.

According to Aidan Fay, a Stanford sophomore in the program, “I felt like a participant in an incredible tradition.”

Fay is one of over 30 students currently being mentored by a National Security Affairs Fellow. Since 1969, high-ranking members from the Department of State and the five branches of the U.S. armed forces – Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy and Marines – have come to Stanford to engage in the intellectual life of the university: guest speaking in classes, attending seminars and writing their own policy-relevant research papers.

The program came about in 2013, when Hoover senior fellow Amy Zegart decided to try something new: pairing the visiting fellows with Stanford undergraduates who had never had any previous experience with the U.S. military. Over an academic year, fellows mentor their students in regular one-on-one meetings and attend special events together – like the Marine Corps birthday celebration.

“Most undergraduates at Stanford have never met anyone from the military,” said Zegart, the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of the Robert and Marion Oster National Security Affairs Fellows Program.

“Data shows that civil-military relations have been growing more distant,” said Zegart. “We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for 17 years but most of us don’t feel it or think about it day to day. The protected and the protectors come from different worlds and they don’t actually interact in the way that they did before the all-volunteer force was created.”

Stepping into another world

The Marine Corps birthday was one of many events that Fay participated in as part of the mentorship program. But a real highlight of the program are the presentations each fellow gives about their own career and background in the military, said Fay. At these talks, fellows discuss the professional and personal issues they encountered on deployment, including the specific situations and problems they faced.

“People always seem to say, ‘I want to fix my weaknesses.’ Well, your weaknesses are your weaknesses, and I don’t know that we always get to fix those. So, maybe we identify our strengths and hone those instead.”

—Col. Paul Krattiger, U.S. Army

“I’ve become more aware of the realities of the world that we live in,” said Fay. When current fellow Lt. Col. Kevin Childs spoke, for example, he described what it was like being President Obama’s attaché when news broke about the Ghouta chemical attack in Syria in 2013.

“As someone who studies international security issues, these talks have given me insight into what actually happens on the inside on a day-to-day basis,” said Megan Haines, a Stanford senior in the program.

For example, in Lt. Col. Timothy “Papa” Murphy’s presentation, he shared a situation he had to deal with as an Air Force squadron leader on a 2016 mission in Syria: A novice pilot nearly hit an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on his first assignment – an accident that could have resulted in serious consequences for diplomacy. Murphy also talked about being stationed in Afghanistan and losing a fellow soldier and friend in an attack.

“Students have the chance to gain a sense of the operational environment in real-life policymaking rather than examining big policy issues from afar,” said Zegart. “They get to ask and learn from our fellows, ‘What’s it really like to be you?’”

For Haines, learning about the personal experience of each fellow has helped her better understand what it means to serve your country.

“It’s about devoting yourself to something bigger than one individual person,” said Haines.

Getting advice from a colonel

Haines and Fay are both being mentored by Col. Paul Krattiger from the U.S. Army. For Krattiger, who has served over 20 years in the military, mentoring is in “everything we do.”

“At the different levels that you serve, you always have a team; it could be a thousand soldiers or three,” said Krattiger. “You are going to take stock of that team and ask: ‘What are people’s strengths? What are their weaknesses? How can I create opportunities for people to move beyond their strengths and around their weaknesses?’”

Krattiger’s ability to swiftly assess people’s skills has manifested in the kind of advice he gives the Stanford students he is mentoring.

“People always seem to say, ‘I want to fix my weaknesses,’” said Krattiger. “Well, your weaknesses are your weaknesses, and I don’t know that we always get to fix those. So, maybe we identify our strengths and hone those instead.”

Krattiger’s military precision has also been effective when helping students approach their own path in life.

“When it comes to talking to Col. Krattiger about things I want to do in my life in the future, he can pick out holes really quickly in my thinking,” said Fay. “He’s said, ‘Instead of trying to check certain boxes to achieve your goals, why don’t you decide what your goals are and find the experiences that allow you to accomplish them.’”

Sharing Farm traditions with fellows

While students get a flavor of military life, fellows also experience what it’s like being a student at Stanford, said Zegart.

“The students are in a way ambassadors who enable our fellows to better understand and experience undergraduate life at Stanford – and that includes, for the record – teaching them the art of fountain hopping.”

Stanford students who are interested in applying to the program for the 2019-20 academic year can send a cover letter and resume to Nga-My Nguyen by June 15, 2019. More information about the program can be found on the Hoover Insitutition National Security Affairs Fellows Mentorship Program website.