Friday, December 28, 2012

Student Spotlight: Matt Williams

For this post, we’ve interviewed Matt Williams, a second-year SAIS M.A. student concentrating in Strategic Studies.  Matt graduated from University of Florida in 2006 with a BA degree in Political Science, and he spent four years working as an intelligence analyst prior to enrolling at SAIS.
What do you plan on doing after graduation, professionally?
I have long wanted a career in public service, and I hope to return to U.S. government service after SAIS. I was inspired by the September 11th terrorist attacks to study international relations, Arabic, and to live and work abroad—perhaps an unexpected choice for a small-town kid from Florida. After returning to the United States, I served as Special Assistant to Senator Bill Nelson and later as an analyst in the Defense Department. I hope to draw on those experiences, as well as my SAIS education, and transition into a policy position.
What specifically attracted you to SAIS, and to Strategic Studies?
Several factors attracted me to SAIS, including the Strategic Studies program. I was drawn first to SAIS because of its academic rigor and focus on developing practical, policy-relevant knowledge and skills. I appreciated the Strategic Studies program’s emphasis not only on the use of force in international politics, but on history and decision making too. Like other programs at SAIS, the Strategic Studies program supplements its coursework with several compelling opportunities to travel and learn outside the classroom. Taken together, I felt that SAIS and Strategic Studies aligned best with my career goals.
What are some of the courses you’re taking and skills you’re learning right now that will help you in your professional career?
I just completed a new course, “National and International Dimensions of Cybersecurity,” which stressed both technology and policy. Our professor—a scholar and a practitioner himself—covered a range of relevant topics, from the workings of the Internet to the possibility of cyber warfare. I also enjoyed “Comparative Political Economy,” which I thought integrated well the international relations and international economics curriculums. My favorite class was Dr. Eliot Cohen’s “Art of Strategic Decision.” Through lectures, case studies, and a semester-long practicum, we considered the many stresses on national security decision makers, including the political, physical, and social psychological. I developed a sense of how complex decision making can be, and importantly, specific strategies to mitigate those stresses in my own career. Finally, SAIS has helped to hone my writing, whether for a long research paper or a policy memorandum.
How did you spend your summer?
I interned in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and prepared for the Strategic Studies Department’s annual International Staff Ride. In the spring, the students, faculty, and guests of the Department will travel to Vietnam to study the 1968 Tet Offensive where it took place. Over the summer, a fellow student and I traveled extensively throughout Vietnam to begin making the necessary preparations for the upcoming trip. With the help of a team of students, we visited sites important to the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War, drafted an itinerary, and began securing transportation and accommodation for approximately 50 participants.
The Strategic Studies Staff Ride is a long-standing tradition at SAIS.  What is it, and why is it useful?
Staff rides are systematic, on the ground analyses of a military campaign or particular engagement, typically undertaken by officers for training purposes. The Strategic Studies Department has adopted them as a learning experience for its students; theInternational Staff Ride is one of three conducted each year. This is the Department’s first staff ride to East Asia, and its first consideration of the Vietnam War. Staff rides ask participants to consider not only what happened and why, but a leader’s decision making and judgment. Participants wrestle with the enduring challenges of leadership, which transcend time and the military context. Staff Rides are organized entirely by students and represent one of several leadership opportunities offered by the Department. Last year, I worked with a team of students to research the Battle of Britain, the Nazi Air Campaign over Britain in WWII. The experience is unique to the Strategic Studies Department and SAIS, and participating and leading a staff ride is something I will draw on throughout my career.
Thanks for reading!
– Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions