Alum Highlight: Donald Pruefer
Call him prescient, if you’d like, but Donald Pruefer insists he “had no idea war would break out” when he began researching Russian nationalism in May 2008—three months before Vladimir Putin’s armies invaded the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia.
Still, Pruefer, who had just started Georgetown’s Doctor of Liberal Studies program, had already shown an uncanny ability to pick research topics that would later make headlines. For example, in his 1998 master’s thesis at Indiana University he examined the decommissioning of Russia’s nuclear-powered vessels, believing that the careless manner in which the process was being handled would result in an accident. (“Not an ‘if,’ but a ‘when,’” as he put it.) In August 2000, the Kurtz, a nuclear-powered submarine, sank in the Barents Sea after a faulty torpedo exploded during naval exercises.
Pruefer is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, rising from noncommissioned officer to Major before retiring in 2003. Fluent in Russian, he is now a Program Manager at a defense contractor in the D.C. area, specializing in military planning and support, area research, and advisory services to government and private customers.
He said the Doctor of Liberal Studies program, from which he received his doctorate last year, encouraged him to explore and connect broad areas of interest.
“The interdisciplinary aspect allowed me to take any courses I needed at the University,” he said. “I was able to find my own path to the study of Russian nationalism, with the help of critical sources and thinkers at Georgetown and elsewhere.”
In the spring of 2008, Russo-Georgian tensions were rising; and Putin, whom Pruefer calls an “unbelievably adept reader of human emotions,” was able to exploit both Russians’ ethnic pride and the hurt many had experienced at the breakup of the Soviet Union. His thesis explores the deep roots of Russian ethno-nationalism and the myriad factors that affect it.
Leaders like Putin “don’t create the wave,” Pruefer said. “They just get on the board and know how to ride it.”
Alum Highlight: Jennifer Phillips
Not so long ago, the highlights of Jennifer Phillips’ week were the two nights she would drive more than 35 miles from Fort Meade, Maryland, where she was stationed, to her classes at Georgetown.
“What I looked forward to all week where those two days that I had class,” said Phillips, a Major in the Air Force Reserves, who received a Doctor of Liberal Studies degree in 2016. “I looked forward to that environment and the interactions in class.”
And what did that experience teach her? Perhaps, most important, said Phillips, an expert in military intelligence and support who has an MBA in management, was—well, how much she didn’t know.
“It’s a really humbling experience,” she said.
And an immensely valuable one. In fact, it’s a good bet that Phillips could not have written her dissertation, “Hermeneutic Inquiry and Just War Theory: Finding Meaning in Post-War Society,” without looking skeptically at the whole idea of “knowing” and truth—concepts some philosophers say are incomplete and mediated by our own personal and cultural narratives.
If this sounds theoretical, consider that Phillips applied her analysis to a critical, real-world dilemma: how to achieve real peace in post-2001 Afghanistan.
“How do we achieve order and justice in a society postbellum when the yardstick for measuring order and justice appears indeterminate and variable? …” she wrote. “Often, programs designed to achieve peace and security can be perceived by the affected population as inconsistent with social, religious, or cultural worldviews.”
Phillips applies the insights she gained from her dissertation, and her experience at Georgetown, to her job at USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which leads and coordinates the U.S. government’s humanitarian assistance efforts overseas. She is currently a Humanitarian Assistance Advisor to the U.S. military and has deployed on a number of disaster responses including the 2016 Ecuador earthquake and the USG response to Ebola in West Africa. She said the program helped her “see the value in different disciplines and domains that might not normally be associated with a given topic.”
“It really opened up the aperture of possibilities.”