Many SIS graduate students work while pursuing their degrees, and for some, that work takes the form of active duty service in the military. In honor of Veterans Day on November 11, we spoke with Eric Lies, a lieutenant in the US Navy and a student in one of SIS’s online graduate programs, the Master of International Service (MIS) program (executive track).
After nearly a decade in the Navy, Lies is set to transition out of active service and graduate from SIS this coming spring. Lies has focused his degree with a concentration in post-conflict transitions and international negotiations. We asked Eric about his military service and the unique benefits that the MIS program brings to those pursuing a career in international service.
- How did you decide you wanted to join the Navy?
- It was a mix of a few things. In high school, I really loved the work that dealt with foreign policy, international relations, and policy development. The Naval Academy reached out at the end of my junior year and let me know about a summer program on their campus. I decided to go, and I really liked what I learned about the school and the programs they had. I always knew I wanted to serve my country in some capacity, and I saw joining the Navy as a really great way to do that. So, I officially enrolled in the Naval Academy in 2010.
- Walk us through your time in active duty after graduating from the Naval Academy. Where have you been stationed? What are some moments that stand out in your mind?
- I graduated from the Naval Academy in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in foreign policy, and I immediately joined the surface warfare community with a nuclear specialty stationed in San Diego, California. My first ship deployed to the Persian Gulf; my second deployment was to the Seventh Fleet, with the Naval aircraft carrier that I was on being the first in Vietnam since the Vietnam War.
- I got stationed in Japan right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the two years I spent out there were the most memorable so far. While lockdown wasn’t great, I was able to make some really good friends. When we could actually go out and start exploring things, the opportunity to experience the culture in Japan was phenomenal. While I had been to many great places, there is a difference between what you can experience as a visitor versus what you can experience living somewhere. Now, I’m back in San Diego until I transition out of active duty in June 2023.
- Tell us a little bit about your responsibilities. What does your service currently entail?
- I am a department head and have about 200 people that report to me. I’m in charge of all the limited-duty sailors at a training command, so if a sailor breaks their foot or they have some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, they get sent to my department for treatment. Our goal is to get them back out to the fleet at 100%, rather than having them just suffer through it and not be able to function as well mentally. I can’t speak for the other service branches, but at least in the Navy, we’ve definitely put a lot of effort toward improving our mental health response and getting people the care and support they need. I’ve seen the increase in the importance put on it between now and when I first got my commission.
- Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree in international service?
- One of my goals in the future is to be able to teach the next generation of people who want to serve their country. To teach at the collegiate level, you are going to need a master’s degree or. most likely, a doctorate. I essentially got my master’s degree in nuclear engineering through my training in the Navy—but that made me realize: I actually don’t like engineering. I do know, however, that I like political science and international relations. So, I saw pursuing a graduate degree in these things as a natural steppingstone. I also saw a great opportunity to bolster my skills on the more academic, rigorous thinking side of this field versus the practitioner side; that way, when I transition out of active duty and start applying for jobs, I can better market myself. In addition, I just like school. I like to learn.
- How did you learn about American University’s MIS program? What about it interested you?
- A couple of my friends who have already transitioned out of the Navy are doing programs in international relations, so they did a lot of the legwork on looking at specific colleges. At this time, I was still stationed in Japan, so I also needed a program that was completely online. While my friends ended up going to other schools, they both recommended that I look into American as an option. And it ended up being exactly what I wanted. They had an excellent online program with great professors and an executive option that lined up with the work experiences I already had. I knew it was the right fit. I didn’t even apply to any other programs; I knew this is where I needed to go.
- How do you think your career in the Navy has affected your experiences in the MIS program? How do you think those experiences differ from your classmates?
- I think where this difference comes up most notably is in my leadership class. We have a decent number of people who are either active duty or veterans in that class, but like I said earlier, I have 200 people working under my supervision, and you generally do not get to that scale as quickly as I did in the military. Two months after graduating from the Naval Academy, I oversaw 45 people with experience that ranged between a couple of months to 17 years. So, having that very real responsibility so quickly puts everything into a different perspective than others may have. You can talk about the strategies behind displays of power or displays of strength when you’re stateside, but being on a ship that exemplifies those displays is very different. When you’re talking about post-conflict studies or international communications: I’ve seen how somebody in Bahrain who is from an Arabic culture deals with social interactions versus somebody non-Arabic in Australia, or Vietnam, or Japan, as opposed to someone from the US. It gives you a better appreciation for the nuances of the operational side—not just the theoretical side—of this field.
- Other than teaching, what does the future look like for you?
- If I get exactly what I want, I would get picked by the State Department to work in the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. I feel like that would be the perfect place to apply all of my studies. I’ve been training for the last eight-and-a-half years to go out and, if need be, kill people and go fight the wars. I want to switch to stopping the wars and getting people back to living the best lives they can afterwards.
- How do you think that your time in the MIS program will help you in your future career?
- There is the obvious opportunity to network. A lot of the professors at SIS and in the MIS program come from the government departments related to these topics. So, there is a very good connection between the academics and the practitioners.
- The other part is that there is such diversity amongst the student base in terms of professional careers and social and cultural backgrounds. You have people from the different branches of the military; people in the intelligence community, private sector, NGOs; and more. You also have people from all over the United States and from different countries. And the best part is that we all approach the material from such different angles. You can really complement each other’s learning. There are so many times where I am looking at a problem one way, and somebody else will say something that I never would’ve thought about because it was just outside of my scope of things. There are other places that offer networking or address your theoretical instruction or have good syllabi. But that, in combination with the wealth of people here, is such a great part of the program. It’s what I’ll take with me in the future.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the individual and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the US Government.