Colby on the Front Lines

Colby on the Front Lines

Graduates in the military tap into their liberal arts background

By Robin Respaut '07


Growing up in a military family, Shagory ’05, the Army intelligence officer, decided early on to follow her father’s path into the Army, but she wanted to attend college first. By choosing Colby, Shagory knew she would be in a minority on Mayflower Hill. “I was definitely a little bit nervous, because I knew Colby was a very liberal school,” said Shagory, who returned from her second stint in Iraq in November. “But all of my friends were very supportive.”

F/A-18C Hornet figher plane
Lt. Ali Ghaffari '02, a Navy pilot at the controls of a F/A-18C Hornet fighter plane.

In Iraq, on her second deployment, she worked with five provincial governments and 140 provincial council members overseeing how they effected Army security operations. The job made Shagory grateful for her government major, she said, and for her knowledge of the ways government evolves as well as a government’s shifting relationship to the people governed. “We had to adjust our thinking all the time.”

Shagory, 27, who between deployments typically lives in a village near an Army base in Germany, said the military would benefit from more Colby graduates. The creative and analytical minds coming out of liberal arts schools, she said, are well suited to the type of military nation-building needed in Iraq and in Afghanistan. “The wars require people who can really think through problems. We always ask ourselves, ‘What are the humanitarian projects we can do? How are we going to get the government functioning?’ Those are the issues facing Iraq right now,” Shagory said. She plans to join the State Department or enter graduate school after she leaves the Army later this year.

President Adams, who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, also believes the military has become less rigid since his own service, in Vietnam in the 1960s. As a lieutenant and advisor to South Vietnamese troops, he learned that the macro level is unquestionable to a soldier, he said, but the micro level is not. “Within that very broad array of things, there are a lot of independent judgments and decisions that need to be made professionally.”

As a fighter pilot, Ghaffari knows about independent judgment, and he says the nature of the military and the lessons of a liberal arts college complement each other. “If I had gone to school and had a straight-up engineering background, I think I would be at a disadvantage,” he said. “The military throws different things at you and sees if you can handle it. Colby does that too.”

That propensity for critical thinking can, on occasion, unnerve high-ranking officers, but in the long run, a liberal arts graduate can greatly influence decisions on the battlefield, said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Pete Hayden ’92, chief of foreign assistance law in Baghdad for U.S. forces in Iraq.

An attorney, Hayden reviews proposed expenditures of U.S. government funds in support of the Iraq Security Forces “to make sure it is spent the way Congress intended.” A government and philosophy major at Colby, he has also served as an advisor to legal counsel to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. “There is a little more reflection with a liberal arts background,” Hayden said. “I think a little more broadly, and that may make you a little less decisive. But it means that you are, perhaps, a little less willing to pull the trigger unless you have considered what the downrange impact of your action will be.”

The connection between the seminar rooms on Mayflower Hill and the battlefield may seem hard to draw. But for some there are things about military life that aren’t all that different from college. Marine 1st Lt. Joey Berg ’06, an executive officer and fire support coordinator, spent three summers training with the Marines as an undergraduate and found that the transition wasn’t difficult. “I was on the crew team,” Berg said, “and the structure and discipline is similar to aspects of the military. You get up early, you do the workout, and then you do your job. You come to understand what the military expects from you.”

For others landing in the military can be jarring.

Ghaffari majored in biology and wanted to go to medical school. “A friend asked me how I would pay for it, and of course I didn’t know. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you get the military to pay for it?’” Ghaffari had never considered military service, but, faced with impending loans, he went to a Navy recruiting office in Waterville as a senior, and later signed up for Officer Candidate School—surprising both his friends and himself, he said.

After graduation came OCS—13 weeks of intensive training that could not have been more different from life at Colby. “They stripped all the independence you had in college,” Ghaffari said. “We had to ask to go to the bathroom. We were screamed at. We were nothing. That was really hard for me. They have it down to a science on how to break you down so they can build you back up.”

But there is a rationale behind the grueling process, Ghaffari said. “By the time you are done, you are a totally different person. You’re more ingrained into the military mindset of teamwork and structure.”

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  • On April 29, 2010, anon wrote:
    Colby still does have an ROTC program, which is offered through the University of Maine. Colby currently has three rotc cadets, including one senior who will be commissioned in May as a 2LT.