Training Senior Officers for Difficult Jobs and Hard Decisions

on January 28 | in Featured | by

Two of the 21 female faculty members at the U.S. Army War College are Hollins graduates.

By Beth JoJack ’98

Photo of Megan Hennessey-Croy

Hennessey-Croy

As part of her audition for a position as assistant professor of educational methodology at the U.S. Army War College, Megan Hennessey-Croy ’07 was asked by members of the hiring committee to give a “job talk” to explain what she could contribute to the school’s mission of educating senior officers.

Before Hennessey-Croy arrived at the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, campus, a faculty member involved with hiring got in touch with Jacqueline “Jackie” Whitt ’03, associate professor of strategy for USAWC, to tell her the school was considering a candidate who’d also graduated from Hollins.

Of USAWC’s 211 faculty members, only 21 are female, according to Whitt. The fact that she might soon be teaching with another Hollins alumna blew her mind.

Whitt, who’d never met Hennessey-Croy, quickly tracked her down on social media to say she’d have a cheerleader in the audience during the job talk. “It can be sort of a nerve-wracking thing to do,” she says.

Whitt’s messages put Hennessey-Croy at ease. “It definitely served as a warm welcome and helped me feel like I would have an instant connection in [an] otherwise foreign place,” she explains.

Hennessey-Croy nailed the presentation and got the job. “So now there are two of us from this women’s college working in this pretty specialized field,” Whitt says.

The pretty specialized field is professional military education, which encompasses numerous schools and training sites designed to educate members of the military at different stages in their careers.

At USAWC the students are at the peak of their careers. They include senior military officers, typically at the lieutenant colonel and colonel rank, from the Army and all other branches of the armed services, members of foreign militaries, and civilians working in national security.

Photo of Jacqueline Whitt

Whitt

After completing a 10-month residential program, students earn a master’s degree in strategic studies. “The job there is to get senior officers, who have all been in the military for 18 to 20 years in some cases, to look at the bigger picture, at the international picture,” says Whitt, who wears a bold purple streak in her hair.

While some students retire from the military not long after receiving their master’s degree, others will continue on in the highest ranks. “At the end of the day, we need them to go out and do important jobs and difficult jobs and make hard decisions,” Whitt says.

At USAWC, Whitt teaches history but also foreign policy, national security and defense, and international relations.

“I tell them my job is to scramble their brains up, explode their heads a little bit, make them think in really different ways, and really challenge them,” Whitt says. “Then we’ll spend the rest of the year putting them back together.” If she does her job well, the students will think of her classroom when they have to make important decisions down the road.

“I always tell them to imagine me asking them, ‘So what? How do you know what you think is right is right? Why does it matter? What are the implications of this? What would it take to change your mind?’” Whitt explains. “If they don’t remember a single specific reading, I want them to remember those kinds of really critical hard questions.”

While Whitt stays busy guiding individual students, Hennessey-Croy spends her days looking at the big picture, searching for ways to improve educational outcomes. Many mornings, you’ll find her sitting in on a seminar. “That gives me the chance to interact a little bit with the students and see the faculty in action,” she says. “I see what they’re doing, what they could maybe be doing a little bit differently, how the curriculum is coming across to the students, that kind of thing.”

Since many of the students already have master’s or terminal degrees, Hennessey-Croy says, they hold high expectations for their teachers. “We have a mission to meet, so we want to make sure the faculty are prepared.”

In the afternoons, Hennessey-Croy typically works on programming. Right now, that mostly means developing the Center for Collaborative Education and Communication at the USAWC, slated to open in 2019.

“We’re kind of combining communication skills development for both faculty and students with an educational methodology perspective,” she explains. “So [we’re] taking a look at how we can incorporate communication skills training into every facet of the curriculum. …Typically, civilian institutions keep faculty and student programming separate in these types of centers, so combining it is something a little innovative that I’m excited about.”

Something to contribute

As Hollins students, neither Hennessey-Croy or Whitt planned to have careers in professional military education.

Her first year, Whitt, a North Carolina native, harbored vague ideas about one day working in Washington, D.C., possibly for the State Department.

Spending a semester during her junior year studying in Vietnam firmed up Whitt’s career goals. There, she had a chance to hear survivors of the Vietnam War talk about their experiences. The picture they painted was starkly different from the accounts she’d heard in her U.S. classrooms. “The idea that there are really more than two sides to every story really stuck with me,” she says.

Whitt returned to Hollins knowing she wanted to go to graduate school for history, and maybe end up teaching at a small liberal arts college.

In her classrooms in Pleasants Hall, Whitt’s professors and peers never raised an eyebrow at her interest in war and foreign and military strategy. She didn’t know she was unusual. “I showed up at grad school and, it turns out, there aren’t many women doing that,” Whitt says.

As a war scholar, Whitt is less interested in weapons and tactics than in military and foreign policy, which explains her Twitter handle: @notabattlechick. “Wars have effects on every level of human existence,” Whitt explains. “All of the way from individuals to families, from governments and states to societies and civilizations. You can look at war from almost any lens and almost any angle.”

When Whitt, who double majored in history and international relations, earned her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008, the Great Recession was in full swing. Jobs for history professors, which had been in short supply before the crash, became even more elusive. When Whitt was offered a spot teaching history at West Point, she jumped at it.

She faced more than a few cultural differences. Everyone wore a uniform. Cadets stood at attention and saluted her at the beginning of class. “Even though I studied the military,” she says, “I’d never been in the military. I knew very little in practice.”

Once she got used to her new setting, Whitt found she thrived in a military classroom. In 2012, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, for a position teaching strategy at the Air War College, the senior professional education school of the U.S. Air Force. Although she went from teaching young cadets to experienced officers, Whitt doesn’t remember feeling intimidated.

“They had hired me to do a job and to do a job that I was an expert in and that I did very well,” Whitt says. “I wasn’t there to teach them to fly jets or to lead squadrons. That’s their expertise. I was there to teach them about military history and strategy, to get them to think about broader questions.”

That doesn’t mean Whitt never feels like an outsider working in military education. “You still feel like an interloper sometimes, but that’s okay,” Whitt says. “Hearing from somebody from a different perspective who has maybe a different worldview or a different background is actually really, really important.”

Like Whitt, Hennessey-Croy had visions of a career in academia when she graduated from Hollins with a double major in English and religious studies. She completed her master’s degree in English at University College London. After graduation, she returned home to Arizona, where she took a job teaching high school English. When budget cuts eliminated her position there, Hennessey-Croy found a job running testing and evaluation exercises and creating marketing materials at U.S. Army Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona.

That work pointed Hennessey-Croy to the possibilities of becoming an academic within the professional military education setting. In 2010, she moved to Washington, D.C., to teach communications and critical thinking at the Marine Corps University. Next, she worked as a contract instructional systems designer for government agencies while earning her Ph.D. in education from George Mason University.

The experiences she’d had working with the military made Hennessey-Croy think maybe she had something to contribute to the armed forces. In 2016, she was commissioned into the U.S. Navy Reserve through the Direct Commission Officer program, which is designed as an entry point into the military for those who’ve developed needed skills in the private sector. To do it, Hennessey-Croy had to complete an intensive 12-day officer course in Newport, Rhode Island.

“It’s a lot,” she says. “You’re doing pushups in the sand pit and marching and having people yell at you and jumping off high dives into tactical pools.”

One weekend a month and two weeks a year, Hennessey-Croy travels to Norfolk, Virginia, where she works as public affairs officer for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “You have to really know why you’re doing it and be driven by patriotism or something more than just the money, because you certainly don’t get paid a lot,” she says. “I wanted to give back.”

Success in any environment

Whitt groans when recounting the number of times someone has assumed she’s the wife of a military officer during her tenure. When coming into a meeting at USAWC, she subconsciously counts how many other women are in the room.

Attending a women’s college, the two women agree, prepared them to excel in this kind of male-dominated environment.

Hennessey-Croy points to earning a leadership studies certificate through Hollins’ Batten Leadership Institute as a factor in her professional success. In her day-to-day work, she tries to remember the way Abrina Schnurman-Crook, executive director of the program, emphasized that “you have to find your own way of leadership.”

“If you know who you are and have your own set of values and understand how you want to lead, lead in your own life and lead others,” Hennessey-Croy says. “It can prepare you for any kind of environment.”

Whitt recalls serving on an academic policy committee as a student, which required that she attend meetings with the vice president for academic affairs and the dean of academic services. Not only did they welcome Whitt’s input, they required it. That experience wasn’t any less intimidating, Whitt says, than sitting in on meetings with high-ranking officers.

“Hollins made me absolutely unafraid to speak up and absolutely sort of fearless in terms of speaking my mind, doing it articulately and thoughtfully, but also to lead in a way that encourages collaboration and team building and consensus building,” Whitt says. “I’m not even sure any of that was explicit. It just felt like a part of the natural development of who I was by the time I graduated.”

Beth JoJack is a frequent contributor to Hollins magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

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