New Fellowship Helps Students Jump-Start Their National Security Careers

Thanks to two University of Virginia alumni, Batten students with an interest in national security have a new pathway to success.

Kevin Heaney (MPP ’22) and Sydney Pulliam (BA ’22)
Batten students Kevin Heaney (MPP ’22) and Sydney Pulliam (BA ’22). Heaney and Pulliam are recipients of the first Duke-Richards National Security Fellowship. (Batten Communications)

One morning in 2008, early on in his first internship at the Pentagon, Tyler Duke (COL ’10) heard his colleagues discussing an upcoming meeting about the Iraq War. “Being a precocious intern, I asked my supervisor if we had a seat at that table,” Duke said.

His supervisor told him yes. By 7:30 a.m. the following morning, Duke, an unpaid intern who had only been working at the Pentagon for a few weeks, was surrounded by three- and four-star generals, watching the secretary of defense and the commanding general of Iraq discuss military strategy. 

Enthralled, Duke took extensive notes and began typing them up as soon as he returned to his desk. But then— “Stop typing right now.” A senior employee in his office interrupted him, Duke remembers. “He looks at my boss and says, ‘Why was Tyler at that meeting? Tyler should not have been at that meeting.’ But my mentor just grins and says, ‘We have a seat at the table.”’   

Duke went on to work in the Office of the Secretary of Defense before serving as a civilian intelligence officer in Afghanistan, and he thinks of that moment often. “Being exposed to that level of policymaking that early in your career is transformative,” he said. 

But if a few key things in his life had been different, it would never have happened. That’s what Duke was considering when, last February, he texted one of his best friends—Brenan Richards (COL ’08, MPP ’09), his former colleague and a member of the Batten School’s inaugural Master of Public Policy class—with an idea.

When she received Duke’s message, Richards was on a conference call, briefing staff members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She noticed her cell phone light up with his question: Did she want to help create a fellowship for students at the University of Virginia? “I immediately smiled,” she said. 

After her briefing ended, a rapid-fire text exchange ensued: “By 4 p.m. that day, we had come up with the amount of money, where we were going to put it at Virginia, who we were going to target with it and what we were going to call it,” Duke said.

The Duke-Richards National Security Fellowship was established at the Batten School shortly thereafter. Designed to promote and recognize the importance of careers in national security, the fellowship will help mentor and financially support Batten students who have been awarded national security internshipsespecially those students who have demonstrated monetary need.

Duke, who was an undergraduate at UVA when he began that internship at the Pentagon, said his former supervisor’s decision to invite him to the meeting was significant. “You could tell he wanted me to really understand what a career in national security could look like,” he said. 

Without mentorship from people like his supervisor, he noted, it would have been difficult for him to achieve the same level of professional success. And without support from the Parents Fund at UVA, which awarded him a grant for the summer, he may not have had the means to accept the internship at all.

Richardswho has advised the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on foreign policy and served as director of Southeast Asia at the White House’s National Security Councilfeels similarly. Although their paths didn’t cross until several years later, when they became colleagues in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Richards had an unpaid summer internship in the Pentagon at the exact same time: the summer of 2008.

She didn’t seek funding, however.  “I didn’t even know you could apply for grants, to be frank,” Richards said. Instead, she lived with her parents for the summer in Northern Virginia, waking up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. every day to commute or “slug” with her father, a military contractor and retired Air Force colonel, to the Pentagon.

Richards got lucky: Her parents’ neighbor, who worked for the Department of Defense as well, helped get her foot in the door for the internship after he offered to drop her resume at a meeting. Without that connection, and the option to live with her parents, Richards said it’s hard to imagine herself in the career she has today. The fellowship felt like an important way to pay her good fortune forward. 

“I don’t want the fact that someone’s not able to take an unpaid internship for financial or logistical reasons to prevent them from pursuing their passion,” she said. 

Because the fellowship gives preference to applicants with financial challenges, Duke and Richards hope it will help shift the demographics of their profession as well. “We really need a diverse cross-section of people to help us face the greatest security challenges,” said Richards. “It’s a national security imperative that we ensure senior policymakers have the benefit of well-rounded, well-developed policy recommendations.” 

They also hope the fellowship will attract more people to public service in the first place.  “We’ve seen a lot of really good people opting for the private sector because they can’t afford to take internships in D.C.,” Duke said. “We thought we would do our part to change that calculus.”

In addition to offering financial assistance, Duke and Richards will mentor the fellows individually, providing everything from resume help to connections for informational interviews. With help from other Batten and UVA alumni donors, they aim to see the program grow into its own “mini-network” of fellows and graduates, Richards said. 

For now, it’s starting with two: Kevin Heaney (MPP ’22) and Sydney Pulliam (BA ’22). A former intern with the Supreme Court of Virginia in her home city of Richmond, Pulliam has long dreamed of working in national security. She was thrilled when she received the email announcing the new fellowship.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that is exactly who I am and what I plan on doing this summer,’” she said. 

At that point, she was concerned about whether her plans would become a reality. Given that her internship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not cover housing and living expenses, Pulliam was simultaneously scouring social media for summer sublets and hunting for someone to rent her room in Charlottesvillewith little luck.

The funding turned her situation around. “Without this fellowship, I would not have been able to accept my internship. It means everything to me,” she said. 

For both fellows, the opportunity to work directly with Duke and Richards feels just as valuable as the financial support. “The money part is important, but the real difference-maker will be getting to know them as successful professionals in this field who have been where we are and have risen up,” said Heaney, who is interning with the National Guard. “I’m so grateful, and I applaud them for taking this upon themselves.” 

Duke and Richards look forward to helping students who are standing where they once stood find their own seat at the table. They’ve already met with both of the inaugural fellows for an introductory dinner. “There was a lot of laughter, a lot of bonding over our love of Charlottesville, and a lot of policy wonk nerding out,” Richards said.

Those kinds of connections with students, they hope, will last for many years to come. “This is our small and humble contribution,” Duke said. “It’s our way of showing students how rewarding this life can be, and hopefully leading them to long careers in serving our country.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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