REPORT: SSP Faculty Interview with Dr. Rebecca Patterson

Dr. Rebecca Patterson, Professor of the Practice, Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program. Photo Credit: SSP

By: Dakota Cary, Reporter

Army Engineer Officer Rebecca Patterson found herself in Thailand with eighteen Americans, twelve Thai soldiers, and a few reservists under her command at the age of twenty-two. She was managing a group almost entirely composed of men, some much older than her, in a foreign country. Dr. Patterson and her unit were tasked with building a daycare center adjacent to an elementary school that served as their temporary barracks. In the late1990s, this Cobra Gold exercise was one of the best ways for the Army’s Engineers to practice their technical skills outside the US.

Dr. Patterson’s first overseas tour was in South Korea, where she was the only female commander in her brigade (1 of 12 commanding officers for those who have lost their 501 notes). Patterson’s commanding officer in South Korea was notable. He went out of his way to assign people based on merit regardless of their gender (at a time when there were still quite a few positions from which women were statutorily excluded). This is partly how Dr. Patterson found herself as the only woman reviewing and critiquing another brigade’s training exercises. Dr. Patterson denies her role as a trailblazer, but her experience belies her humility. A panelist even identified her as such while speaking to Georgetown students at a panel on civil-military relations.

Amidst the levity of her stories about her time in the Army, an occasional flash of deathly sincerity breaks the conversation. The pressure to succeed is so great because you carry the weight of your gender into the mission. If you’re the first and you don’t succeed, you might be the last. Dr. Patterson is heartened by the gender parity in SSP but is quick to point out that such parity may take years to be realized at the highest levels of government.

Flashforward past her M.S. in Engineering Management from Missouri University of Science and Technology, her PhD in National Security Policy from George Washington University, her time with the National Defense University, West Point, The World Bank, NATO, George Was…… You know what, here’s a link to her impressive CV.

Dr. Patterson began her dual-hatted position as the Center for Security Studies’ Associate Director in the fall of 2018. She described her start at Georgetown as ‘the first time I’ve come into a position and felt like I was meant for the job from the very beginning.’ When asked about her plans for the program in the years to come, Dr. Patterson made clear that she’s being methodical about her approach. Her first year was internally focused— thinking about course content, the structure of concentrations, the allocation of SSP summer funding, and the like. The biggest factor in examining the structure of the program will continue to be feedback from students.

Without using the words cura personalis, it is clear that Dr. Patterson embodies the Georgetown ethos. Her vision of an SSP student extends beyond them simply showing up for two or three classes per week. Instead, she wants students to make the most of what the program has to offer—from Tuesday lunches to accessible professors. In a defining moment for her, a student confided that they did not have a friend with whom they felt comfortable sharing their paper for peer-review. She said that moment hit her especially hard; our program needs to function in such a way that students who work full-time or have commitments to their families feel at-home in Mortara and have access to all that Georgetown can provide.

Patterson says she’ll be surveying the rest of the School of Foreign Service in her second year, looking for ways to codify what’s working well, and learning from other programs’ successes. On this point, she is definite: “When you come into a position at the best security studies program in the country, you don’t start by changing what’s working.”

The second position in her dual-hat role with the Center for Security Studies is that of professor. Your correspondent had the privilege of taking Military Operations and Grand Strategy with Dr. Patterson in the fall and can attest to her style in the classroom. This summer she will be teaching a course in Political Economy, a course she has taught at other institutions and which serves as an ode to her bachelor’s degree in economics and time at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group. In the fall, Dr. Patterson will be teaching her passion, peacekeeping. She developed the curriculum after discussing the need for a course in this area with the chairs of the USNP, Mil-Ops, and International Security concentrations. The class will explore historical and recent developments in UN peacekeeping, the role of the United States in the peacekeeping operations, and these mission’s impact on the security environment of conflict-prone areas.

Advice for students. Don’t minimize the value your classmates bring to the program, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Being a student at a world-class institution means that you and your peers are just as valuable and impressive as the program faculty. The latter is easier said than done to be sure, but Patterson’s point is clear. The value of this program is defined by what you learn while you’re here and what you take away.

Last words. All of us are teaching here because we love students. If there’s some faculty member whose class you can’t get into, then reach out to them and get coffee. Take advantage of everything this program has to offer.


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