May is Military Appreciation Month, and we at MPA@UNC are fortunate to count veterans and active service members among our students. To shine the spotlight on the sacrifices and hard work of these courageous individuals, we interviewed Brent Thompson, who is serving as a judge advocate with the US Army’s Special Operations Task Force-South in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Thompson already holds degrees from Montana State University and Indiana University School of Law and is continuing his education while on active duty through MPA@UNC. A Q&A with Thompson follows.
MPA@UNC: Why did you decide to join the military?
Thompson: I was the fifth generation of my family to grow up cattle ranching in Montana, but as a teenager coming out of high school, I was looking for adventure. I enlisted in the Army as an infantryman and served for three years at Fort Lewis, Washington, where I was chosen for a Green to Gold Scholarship. They take enlisted soldiers with officer potential and send them off to college to earn their commission.
MPA@UNC: Why did you decide to pursue an MPA degree?
Thompson: I’m always looking for a challenge. I was looking for something that would enhance my military career but also have pretty good prospects on the outside, down the road. In my current position as a legal advisor to special operations commanders, it is important to have the multi-disciplinary approach that an MPA degree provides. A lot of problems that we confront in the military are often, at their core, administration problems.
MPA@UNC: What aspects of the degree interested you most?
Thompson: It’s such a versatile degree that can be adapted to any number of areas. Having grown up in a small town in Montana, working in local government is close to my heart. I could see myself returning to a smaller state, local, or county government agency when I get out of the military.
MPA@UNC: What made you decide to pursue your degree through MPA@UNC?
Thompson: What I really liked is that I can continue my job as a military attorney and work on my studies from a top-tier program at the same time. I was interested in a quality program that would have academic rigor, and MPA@UNC really fit the bill. A lot of universities tend to have an “ivory tower” academic perspective, but I preferred UNC’s focus on practitioners at the state and local government level.
MPA@UNC: How has your experience been thus far and how do you find the learning environment?
Thompson: I’ve enjoyed it so far. The University of North Carolina tells you they are going to pick the best of the applicants, and I believe that to be true with my cohort. The classes contain a lot of people who are smart and have experience in their respective fields. It makes for stimulating classroom discussions.
This past fall, I went to the Public Administration Conference that the School of Government holds at Chapel Hill. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of my fellow online classmates made the trip as well, because there’s time and expense in doing it. It’s fun to go there and meet all these classmates in person. Not only that, the conference had that state and local government focus I was talking about. We had people coming together who are in the online format, people who are in the residential format, professors, and public administration practitioners. That was a really engaging experience.
MPA@UNC: If you were asked to give advice to someone who was interested in MPA@UNC, what would you say?
Thompson:It is rigorous, but it can be done; you just have to make sure that you manage your time. The online platform that MPA@UNC uses is portable, so you can use it anywhere, and that’s been helpful for me. As I prepared to go to Afghanistan, I had field training followed by pre-deployment leave. Over about a one-month period of time, I attended class in a bus, in the desert, in the Dominican Republic, and on a cruise ship, and made it all happen. I can’t say enough about the professors being willing to accommodate that. I was concerned that my constant travel would be a distraction, but the professors and my fellow students were only too willing to work with me.
MPA@UNC: This month is Military Appreciation Month. We are grateful for your service and all that you bring to the classroom. What are you grateful for?
Thompson: I am grateful that I can pursue these educational goals, and I am thankful for my brothers and sisters in arms. We are a nation that allows academic freedom. That freedom is secured because of the sacrifices a lot of people have made.