Pictured from left, Col. Houston Cantwell, vice superintendent; 2019 Rhodes Scholars Cadet 1st Class Madison Tung and Cadet 1st Class James Brahm; 2019 Holaday Scholar Cadet 1st Class Samantha Potter; and Cathy and Bart Holaday ’65, who support the Alberta B. and Sidney E. Holaday scholarship through the Dakota Foundation.

From graduation to graduate studies

(This article appears in the June 2019 edition of Checkpoints magazine)

On a recent deployment in Qatar, Lt. Col. Christopher Kean’s graduate school experiences in Strasbourg, France, proved to be beneficial.

Kean, a professor in the Air Force Academy’s Office of International Programs, worked as a deputy director of operations alongside French and British military detachments to coordinate air strikes.

“The skills I learned from living in France and learning the language gave my French counterparts a sense of confidence that I understood their concerns,” Kean said.

Those simple lessons, along with a deeper knowledge of the French language and literature, have been a foundation for Kean’s Air Force career since he graduated from the Academy in 1995. Kean attended the University of Strasbourg with the help of the General John K. Gerhart scholarship. Established in 1985, the scholarship helps pay for a two-year master’s degree program in French language or culture. It is administered by the Association of Graduates.

The Gerhart scholarship is one of 10 endowed scholarships and funds available to help graduating cadets attend graduate school. In addition, graduates can attend graduate school through the Academy’s nationally competitive scholarship program (NCSP) or its Air Force-funded Graduate School Program (GSP) or to pursue a health profession.

The number of graduates allowed to go directly to graduate school from the Academy is limited by the number of slots authorized by the Air Force Educational Requirements Board. Approximately 10 percent of each Academy graduating class is able to attend graduate school immediately after their Academy experience. Of those, 38 can move on to a program for health professions.

Dr. Helen Meisenhelder ’90 is the Academy’s director of the Graduate Studies Program. As she administers the different programs and works with cadets on their applications, she sees current and future benefits for the cadets and the Air Force.

“We are creating educated citizens who can think broadly about their position in the Air Force and the Air Force role in the global landscape,” she says. “They think critically and strategically about multifaceted or complicated issues. Hopefully, it brings a level of sophistication to their backgrounds as they become more senior leaders.”

Because of the variety of programs and support for graduate studies, that sophistication can be applied in a number of strategic areas for the Air Force. Science and engineering fields are a high priority. Academy graduates have studied aeronautics/astronautics at MIT and cyber topics at Carnegie Mellon, for example. As they graduate from these top programs, officers are armed with even more knowledge and background that will be beneficial to the nation’s defense.

Meisenhelder and faculty on the Graduate Studies Committee work with cadets to help them see how their Air Force careers can be influenced by potential graduate studies as they prepare applications for the Nationally Competitive Scholarship Program.  In 2019, their efforts resulted in two graduating cadets — James Brahm and Madison Tung — being named Rhodes Scholars. They both will continue their studies in computer science at the University of Oxford in England.

Bart Holaday ’65, a Rhodes Scholar himself, created the Alberta B. and Sidney E. Holaday Scholarship through his Dakota Foundation in 2013 to provide an outstanding cadet with an experience similar to a Rhodes experience. The top Air Force Academy cadet in the Rhodes competition who is not selected for a Rhodes Scholarship receives the Holaday Scholarship, which pays for studies at Exeter College at the University of Oxford.

Cadet 1st Class Samantha Potter is the 2019 recipient of the Holaday Scholarship. She is slated to be an acquisitions officer after her graduate studies in international relations.

“Being able to understand different perspectives and converse with people from all walks of life is amazing. In a negotiations room, I’ll have to talk to everyone in that room to get the best deal,” Potter says. “It comes down to how we lead. I will be in charge of so many different kinds of people, and I don’t see a better way to prepare myself for leading than engaging with people in that way.”

Meisenhelder also sees benefits to the cadets who go through the application process who aren’t selected.

“With their pace and schedule, it is a mechanism to force them to reflect,” she says. “They learn something about themselves and where they fit, what they want to do and how they want to potentially make an impact. It forces them to think about their goals and aspirations. Especially for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarship process, most say they are glad they did it, even if they didn’t get the scholarship.”

Faculty pipeline

From a faculty sustainment perspective, Meisenhelder says, when you have 80-90 students pursue higher education in non-health fields, you can bring them back to the Academy as instructors. The Academy has a pool of officers to draw from who have higher degrees in a variety of backgrounds.

The Graduate School Program specifically, helps develop future active duty faculty for the Air Force Academy. The Academy works with the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to educate new Academy graduates in a variety of fields. After the officers complete their educations and then one or two operational assignments, they return to the Academy on assignment as faculty.

That isn’t the only way graduates return to the Academy, either. Like Kean, graduates have opportunities throughout their Air Force careers to continue their educations to help the Air Force. The degrees they earn can qualify them for Academy faculty positions as well. Kean earned his doctorate in French and francophone studies from the University of Connecticut while on active duty.

“Graduate school definitely changed my life and how I pursued my career,” Kean says. “When I came back to an operational squadron, I was able to fully commit to doing that. Over time, I know having that background helped with other opportunities, like being an exchange officer in Canada.”

The early exposure to graduate programs kept Kean interested in continuing his education. It was not always easy, he says, to balance a doctorate program with his operational duties, but his initial experiences with graduate school helped pave the way for his additional education and return to the Academy.

“I’m super grateful for that. It helped me with my commitment to the Air Force,” Kean says.

The Endowed scholarships and funds managed by the USAFA Endowment and the Association of Graduates can help ensure qualified graduates are able to attend graduate school without the additional stress of tuition bills. Gifts made in support of these funds can help increase payouts, which is necessary as higher education costs at civilian universities continue to rise.

The USAFA Endowment can work with donors to help support continuing education that benefits the Air Force and the Academy for years to come. Call 712-472-0300 to talk with a gift officer about options.

Fields of study 

113 second lieutenants are headed to graduate school after the 2019 graduation. They include:

  • 42 through Graduate School Program
  • 30 through Nationally Competitive Scholarship Program
  • 18 through non-health professions
  • 2 Rhodes Scholars
  • 1 Fulbright Scholar
  • 1 Knight-Hennessy Scholar
  • 1 to law school
  • 27 will attend Air Force Institute of Technology
  • 23 through health professions, including
  • 14 to medical school at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Harvard University, University of North Carolina, Tulane University
  • 1 to dental school
  • 3 to nursing school
  • 1 for physical therapy
  • 1 for clinical psychology

Scholarships and funds that support graduate studies

Air Force Academy cadets have access to 10 endowed scholarships and funds to help pay for graduate studies:

The Earl and Marion Nutter Trust Scholarship

Awarded to the outstanding graduate with prior enlisted service or to the top graduate in the order of merit not receiving another scholarship. Recipient can study for a master’s degree in a discipline approved by the Graduate Studies Committee.

Colonel Franklin C. Wolfe Scholarship

Awarded to an outstanding cadet in one of the humanities. Recipient can study for a master’s degree in a discipline approved by the Graduate Studies Committee.

General Richard L. Lawson Scholarship

Awarded to an outstanding cadet in one of the humanities. Recipient can study for a master’s degree in a discipline approved by the Graduate Studies Committee.

General John K. Gerhart Scholarship

Awarded to top cadet in the French minor to study in France. Recipient studies for a master’s degree in French language and/or culture

Alberta B. and Sidney E. Holaday Scholarship

Awarded to the top Rhodes candidate not selected for the Rhodes scholarship. Recipient can study in a two-year program at Oxford’s Exeter College.

General Follett Bradley Scholarship

Awarded to the top Harvard Kennedy School candidate not offered full funding. Recipient studies for a master’s degree in public policy.

Jane Mary Mengel ’82 Memorial Fund

Supports the Endowed Scholarship Program and the Graduate School Program.

William Blake Smith ’70 Memorial Fund

Supports the Endowed Scholarship Program and the Graduate School Program.

Bennett Estate Gift Fund

Supports a variety of Academy programs, including graduate scholarships.

Ethics and Character Scholarship

Awarded to a cadet in the humanities or social science division who has demonstrated outstanding academic achievement, moral toughness and ethical leadership.


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