Studying at National War College Informs Professor’s Teaching

If you search online for John DeRosa you’ll likely get three primary sets of results. You’ll find links to a convicted killer; a New York Giants beat reporter; and a conflict analysis and resolution expert and doctoral candidate, who teaches at UMUC and is more than half way through a highly-selective and prestigious one-year program at the National War College.

“Either I get a Google alert when I’m going to jail or [find out] what’s happening to the Giants,” said the third guy, UMUC’s John DeRosa, who coincidentally happens to be a Giants fan. He also has published extensively in both scholarly and general-audience platforms. For example, he works on two blogs on the Medium website and maintains a Twitter account that illustrates his sense of humor and commitment to professional excellence.

A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon adorns the top of DeRosa’s Twitter page. In it, Calvin asks his dad, who is seated in an easy chair reading, “How do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?” In the next two frames, his dad stares wide-eyed and tongue-tied before silently returning to his newspaper, and Calvin muses, “I think grown-ups just act like they know what they’re doing.”

The strip is cute and amusing, of course, but it also raises serious questions about how conflicts ought to be resolved and about responsibility and engagement with foreign affairs. “That’s the reason why I’m going to the Ph.D. program that I’m attending,” DeRosa said.

The doctoral-level work has been manageable, DeRosa said, because back in 2001, while studying in his first of two graduate programs, he followed the advice of his adviser who told him to “always keep writing,” as he’d never know if, and when, he’d decide to get a doctorate.

“I kept his advice not knowing that I was going to apply, and then 10 years later, I applied for a Ph.D., and I had this record of writing,” said DeRosa, who is also a member of the Military Writers Guild. He and his Guild colleagues agree that putting words to paper—or at least typing them on the computer—helps identify holes in arguments and perspective, and makes it easier to know where to conduct further research to round out a solid argument.

At the National War College, many of DeRosa’s classmates initially struggled with the 100 pages of reading a night and the regular writing assignments, whereas his doctoral studies prepared him for the workload. “For most of them, this is probably their first university experience in a long time,” he said.

The program is an educational pinnacle in his line of work as a civilian on the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, and for career military officers, DeRosa said.

“Attendance at a senior service college—whether it be the National War College for me or one of the services like the Naval War College—is the last level of educational attainment that sets you up for your senior levels of leadership within the Department of Defense.

“All routes toward senior leadership had to go through attending something like the National War College.”

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DeRosa introducing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at National Defense University

As DeRosa has advanced in his career, which includes more than 20 years as a soldier, officer, and civilian at the U.S. Department of Defense, and teaching as an adjunct professor at UMUC and elsewhere, he has always anticipated studying at the National War College. Last year, one of his bosses attended the college and that set an example.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to put my hat in and compete for one of the two seats here at the college that the Joint Staff sends civilians to,’” he said, noting that most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen have graduated from the program. “This is the place [where] the future leaders of the department go.”

A typical day in the program begins at 8:30 a.m., when DeRosa and his classmates attend a combination of lectures or seminars, and ends at 11:30 a.m. “That’s where your core 100 pages of readings come from, to support this lecture-seminar dynamic,” he said.

Afternoons vary. Once a week students take two elective courses of two hours each, then participate in a regional study. Every student is assigned one—or more—of 23 countries to research and analyze. DeRosa is studying Estonia and Finland and will be visiting both countries. In fact, he noted, he had an appointment at the Finnish embassy in Washington, D.C. that very day.

Those who attend the National War College program take a year-long leave of absence from their jobs at the U. S. Department of Defense. They have no daily obligations back in the office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff pays their salaries for the duration of the program. Even so, between the program, teaching and his Ph.D. studies DeRosa does a good deal of daily juggling.

“It’s quite a bit,” he said. “I spent the entire weekend writing a 20-page paper on Russian nuclear policies.”

Luckily, however, there are a lot of intersections between his teaching and his two programs of study. “They are all intertwined,” he said. “That’s helpful.”

Earlier this year, DeRosa taught a one-credit national security strategy seminar course at UMUC, which related to his studies at the War College. “I was certainly able to directly apply what I learned here to [my] teaching,” he said.

At the War College, students create and submit strategy documents related to their assigned countries as thesis projects. That’s an assignment that DeRosa has brought to his teaching at UMUC. His students choose a strategic challenge that interests them, and they then build the tools necessary to analyze the challenge and propose strategies to combat it.

“While I get to do it over 10 months, my students at UMUC had to do it over three weeks,” DeRosa said.

He has taught at UMUC since 2009, when education center staff at Camp Bondsteel, a U.S. Army base in Kosovo, kept asking task force officers to teach. DeRosa was then a civilian permanently assigned to the base. “That’s how I got started teaching at UMUC,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m here all the time. Why don’t I start teaching?’”

When DeRosa graduates from the War College in June, he will take a different path than his classmates, although they’ll likely meet again, he said. DeRosa plans to advise those who will be making the decisions in the future, and they may well be his classmates.

“I’m not going to be wearing the stars,” he says. “I may be the one giving them the advice, because there is the chance that [my classmates] are going to be the four-starred uniformed officers. It’s highly probable.”