Eliz­abeth James interned at the Pen­tagon this past summer with the Air Force Inter­na­tional Affairs Saudi Arabia Branch. Eliz­abeth James | Courtesy

When senior Eliz­abeth James sat down for lunch at her Pen­tagon internship, she didn’t plan on explaining the allegory of the cave to her division boss. 

“He’s one of the most intim­i­dating people you’ll ever meet in your life,” James said. “I was con­vinced he wouldn’t like me. He comes in and everyone sits up a little straighter and a little taller. He starts saying, ‘Does anyone here know about the allegory of the cave?’”

Thanks to Hillsdale’s core cur­riculum, James recited Plato’s famous thought exper­iment, impressing the entire room. 

“Hillsdale pre­pared me well,” she said.

James is one of a few Hillsdale stu­dents who created their own major, which she says is an intense but worth­while process.

Beginning her sophomore year, James said she felt anxious about choosing her major because none of Hillsdale’s pro­grams really fit what she wanted to study — inter­na­tional affairs. 

“I didn’t want to major in some­thing I wasn’t pas­sionate about, but I didn’t wanna leave Hillsdale either,” James said.

James’ mother informed her about a program that would let her design her own major, picking which classes she thought would be most useful in an inter­na­tional affairs career.

James didn’t believe her mother at first, but after meeting with her freshman advisor and Douglas McArthur, Hillsdale’s reg­istrar, she decided to go forward and begin crafting a major.

Hillsdale’s catalog lays out several rules for making one’s own major, McArthur said.

“They have to be at least 36 credit hours of coursework, they have to have a com­pre­hension exam­i­nation at the end, and a thesis,” he said. “Obvi­ously, it has to be made up of courses that we already have in our cur­riculum. We don’t make up new courses for this.”

Addi­tionally, James had to pick a new advisor and prove before a council of several pro­fessors that her desired major couldn’t be accom­plished through any other inter­dis­ci­plinary ones like inter­na­tional studies in business or sociology.

If the council decides that the major is cohesive and aligns with Hillsdale’s mission, they approve it.

The council approved James’ major, which ranged from religion classes like Intro­duction to Islam, phi­losophy classes like Knowledge, Thought, and Society, and pol­itics classes like World Pol­itics: The Modern State. “The only issue they brought up was the number of credits. I had 46 credits and they told me to leave it at 36, which is the minimum requirement, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m totally okay with that. Thank you,’” James laughed.

James’ major also includes the Wash­ington-Hillsdale Internship Program, or WHIP, which is when she spent a semester working with the Pen­tagon to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. At the end of spring, the air force division asked James to stay for the rest of the summer.

James said her work at the Pen­tagon was her favorite part of the major. “They treated me like a real employee there,” she said. “I wasn’t just the coffee or errand intern.”

While she was there, James sat in on briefs, wrote official memos, and used her spe­cialized Hillsdale edu­cation to her advantage — just like when she delighted her boss by describing the allegory of the cave.

According to James, her rare back­ground in reli­gious studies, pol­itics, and phi­losophy gave her extra tools to succeed at her job. “It’s important to under­stand other coun­tries and other cul­tures, which are often founded by their phi­losophy and reli­gions,” she said. “That also spills into their political ideas and how they see the world. Even Hillsdale’s core was really helpful, which is some­thing I wasn’t expecting.”

While at the Pen­tagon, James said she had to adjust to an exciting and rel­a­tively unpre­dictable lifestyle. During her internship she walked past Sec­retary of Defense James Mattis’ office every day, unknow­ingly passed Gen. Joseph Votel, the director of U.S. central command, in the hallway, escorted the Jor­danian air force chief around the Pen­tagon, and barely missed a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman because of a few inches of snow.

Other times, James over­heard tour guides whis­pering rumors to patriotic visitors. 

“One time, I heard a guide talking about Saddam Hussein’s golden AK-47 rifle, which is in the Pen­tagon but not on the main tour,” she said. “Appar­ently, the com­mandant of the Marine Corps has two of Saddam’s golden glocks above his desk.”

Still, James said her favorite moments were the seem­ingly random weapons expo­si­tions on the lawn. 

“Some days you would walk outside and there would be this giant torpedo just chilling out,” she said. “You just walk by and there’s a giant humvee on the lawn. No big deal.”

James keeps in contact with her old friends and col­leagues. She said she hopes to work in the same sector, but even­tually as a private defense contractor.

“I really want to go back and work for them because I love the envi­ronment. I never met such a large group of people that was so driven and so moti­vated to do their jobs, not just because they’re getting paid, but because they felt there was some­thing that they’re actually con­tributing to the world,” she said. “I was fully aware that it was a very unique expe­rience. I was blessed to be there.”