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.”