Fellows earn GW master’s degrees while working on Capitol Hill.
By Laura Donnelly-Smith
On any given day, Kenton Barber, a defense legislative assistant, might attend a Defense Department meeting, answer inquiries from a military families’ council or brief his boss, Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), about a defense-related issue.
Mr. Barber, a major in the U.S. Army, has spent the past year working in Rep. Kissell’s office as an Army congressional fellow. The Army Congressional Fellowship program is a three-year, three-part program for mid-career Army officers, senior non-commissioned officers, and Department of the Army civilians that combines academic work, practical experience on Capitol Hill, and a two-year assignment in which fellows use the skills gained in the first two parts of the program.
Since early 2010, George Washington University has partnered with the Army to provide the academic portion of the program. And while every branch of the U.S. military has a fellowship program, the Army is the only service that includes a master’s degree. Fellows earn a master of legislative affairs degree through GW’s Graduate School of Political Management. The 11-course degree focuses on applied politics and is the only degree of its kind in the nation.
“The students in this program are trained to be sophisticated political thinkers,” said Steven Billet, director of the legislative affairs program. More than 100 applicants apply for the 25 available fellow spots each year.
“Through this program, the Army has an increasing number of people with Hill experience. It’s beneficial for the Army and an attractive career option for high-potential officers,” Dr. Billet explained. The program also benefits GW by bringing in highly qualified students for the GSPM legislative affairs master’s program—many of whom remain connected to the university after they complete the program.
One of those people is Colby Jenkins, a major in the Army National Guard and former active duty officer in the Army Special Forces. Mr. Jenkins was enrolled as a student in GW’s legislative affairs program from 2006 to 2007. When he told his superiors in the Army about the skills he was gaining in the program, the Army approached GW about formalizing a partnership so that other officers could have a similar experience. Now, Mr. Jenkins is the director of government affairs at American Business Development Group, and an adjunct instructor in GSPM’s legislative affairs program.
Mr. Jenkins said his academic coursework at GW provided him with a solid foundation for his experience on the Hill as a fellow and later as a legislative liaison. But beyond the academics, the program also helped him make important connections, he said.
“The program enabled me to meet outstanding professors and form friendships with my student-peers who were also engaged in some aspect of legislative activity,” he said. “Without a doubt, the program helped me gain the tools to be more effective on the Hill and, by extension, a better asset for the Army and the congressional office I worked in.”
Each fellows cohort begins the program with an intensive orientation lasting from May to December. Fellows also begin their master’s degree coursework during the summer semester, and continue taking courses through the end of the next calendar year. Classes are held at night on Capitol Hill, in the Hall of the States building, and Army fellows are mixed in with other students in the legislative affairs master’s program—about two-thirds of whom are Hill staffers. Approximately six months after starting the program, in January, fellows are assigned to one-year stints in congressional offices.
“The partnership with GW is a tremendous benefit to the Army, George Washington University and members of Congress who have fellows in their offices,” said Major General Ben Hodges, the Army’s chief legislative liaison. Mr. Hodges oversees the legislative fellowship program and serves as the Army’s primary liaison to Congress.
“Through this partnership, Army fellows receive the academic training they need to succeed on the Hill, while GW and Congress get a chance to see the tremendous young men and women who make up today’s Army,” he said.
Tim Meadors was part of the first Army Fellows class to participate in the program under the GW partnership. He started his tenure as a fellow shortly after returning from a deployment. “Through this program, we really learn about Congress and the theory behind it,” he said. “And of course it’s always great when you can learn theory and then go actually apply it at the seat of government. I felt very fortunate. The professors are very knowledgeable and if they’re not currently on the Hill, they’ve been on the Hill and know the dynamics.”
Mr. Meadors is currently working in the Office of the Chief Legislative Liaison headquarters at the Pentagon. The assignment is his two-year “utilization tour,” the third portion of the Army Fellowship program. During the utilization tour, the officer immediately puts to use the skills learned in the fellowship program.
In Rep. Kissell’s office, Mr. Barber helps his boss research and understand defense-related issues. In one meeting between the congressman and airline industry representatives, for example, Mr. Barber provided first-hand information from his deployment experience during a discussion about the amount of luggage service members may check without charge on commercial flights.
“When I walk away from a meeting like that, I feel like we’re really looking out for service members,” he said.
Early on a recent Wednesday morning, Dr. Billet, Mr. Meadors and others involved with the Army Fellows program gathered in a room at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill to witness Mr. Barber’s promotion from captain to major. Mr. Barber’s fiancée, Julie Schwartz, was on hand, as were his colleagues from Rep. Kissell’s office. Rep. Kissell, who calls Mr. Barber “K.B.,” told the audience that he felt fortunate to have worked with the Army Fellows program.
“This has been an incredible program,” Rep. Kissell said, citing his experiences with Mr. Meadors and another fellow, Camille Mack, who had previously worked in his office. “I never thought we’d be able to get three, but then came K.B. What a great source of information he has been.”
Rep. Kissell said the knowledge he’s gained from working with Army Fellows has been invaluable. “When we got into some tough situations, when how we voted depended on the soldiers on the ground …. K.B. would tell us, ‘This is what they’re going through.’ He didn’t tell us how to vote, but he gave us an honest answer. He works incredibly hard.”
Mr. Barber’s promotion order was read aloud, and then Colonel Al Shoffner, one of Mr. Barber’s mentors and the Army’s liaison to the House of Representatives, re-administered the oath of office that Army officers take.
Mr. Barber will complete his year in Rep. Kissell’s office in December, and in January 2012, he’ll begin his two-year utilization tour. He doesn’t yet know where it will be—he may work in Washington, D.C, or might be assigned to a legislative liaison position in Afghanistan. But no matter where he ends up, he said he feels prepared.
“This has been a blessing and an incredible experience,” he said. “I am very grateful to have been a small part of fostering a strong future for the program.”
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