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Unparalleled leadership training, as SAIS explores Gettysburg

$100,000 gift benefits the staff ride program led by Osgood Professor Eliot Cohen
Posted December 4, 2013

Going down into history, as SAIS explores Gettysburg

For more than 20 years, students at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) have been able to relive history in a rather unique way thanks to the staff ride program implemented by Eliot Cohen, the Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies. Staff rides – case studies done at an historical event’s actual location – originated in 19th century Europe as military training, says Cohen, who adds he’s not aware of any other educational institution which has adapted it for scholastic purposes.
'This is completely interactive. Everybody has a role to play. We’re all participants," according to Cohen. "The idea here really is to put students in the position where they have to think about the decisions that someone else made as if they were that person."
And this program recently received a $100,000 gift from Kitty Harvey (SAIS '11) to help ensure staff rides remain a cornerstone of the Strategic Studies education.
Organized by students, these multiple-day excursions (the recent Gettysburg outing included camping through a rainstorm) involve students and professors, in various stages of costume, giving a prepared speech in character, explaining how a particular senior official, soldier, journalist, or other civilian experienced the events of that day in history and why they acted as they did. Staying in character, they then answer impromptu questions from the other participants.
"It’s been a really powerful experience to think about the motivations of the people involved," says Anne Gillman (SAIS '14), whose great-great-great grandfather fought at Gettysburg. "I’ve learned a lot on the trip of how much has not changed… So, it's been interesting to see those patterns." Gillman herself was the recipient of the Nishaya Mangklapruk and Khanh Phan Almon Fellowship, the Isaiah Frank Summer Internship, and the Starr Foundation Fellowship in Southeast Asia Studies.
On the recent Gettysburg staff ride, retired General John R. Allen – commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan from July 2011 to March 2013 – joined the group, speaking about the Gettysburg battle as well as present day conflicts.
"There’s no question in my mind that part of the mission of SAIS is to prepare leaders in international relations," Cohen states. "And I believe the staff ride gives them an opportunity to think through leadership [in a way] that to my mind is unparalleled.
"And we couldn’t do this without philanthropic support," adds Cohen, who explains that alumni and donor support has helped enable staff rides to more remote locations, including overseas to study the Dardanelles campaign, the Normandy landings, and the Vietnam War.