Authentic World War II recruitment posters hung on the walls. An ice sculpture of Alfred Eisenstadt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph sat on the floor. Women in period costume offered trays full of chocolate. Clad in black tie, Yale undergraduates, graduate students and alumni gathered with their professors for a night of old-fashioned revelry.
It was, of course, the reunion (read: networking) dinner for “Studies in Grand Strategy” — which, simply put, is not the average seminar.
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Consider its professors — Charles Hill, Paul Kennedy and John Gaddis: the “big three” of strategic minds at Yale. Or the fact that “GS” as it is called has already developed a reputation in Washington D.C. for training shrewd leaders.
Or the remainder of the reunion.
Revelers lifted up a student seated in a chair and carried him around, Bar Mitzvah-style. Since the “Chocolate Holders” had been suggestively described on the invitation as “girls,” a few female students threatened to call in some “boys” to liven things up. As party favors, students received packs of playing cards bearing the newly designed “Grand Strategy” crest, featuring a fox and a hedgehog — symbols of the two types of historical thinkers as defined by Isaiah Berlin.
“It made you feel like you were part of something greater than your class alone,” said Sander Daniels ’05, a graduate student currently enrolled in the elite full-year seminar.
And elite is an understatement. A 3.8 GPA is a near-necessity to apply, and even that is usually not enough for the class that tells applicants they are Yale’s “most talented,” almost, it seems, just for showing interest in the first place.
Assistant Director of GS Minh A. Luong keeps this rule in mind when reviewing applications. Luong emphasized the preference for an applicant’s real-world experience over stellar academic standing.
“We’d much prefer someone with a 3.8 GPA who’s had international exposure or done public service work, to someone with a perfect GPA who’s done nothing,” Luong said. “If anything, I have to live with these students for an entire year.”
Fitting — sort of. And the premise seems simple enough: An exclusive Yale course that prepares Elis for leadership careers in public service.
But what, exactly, happens when a group of type-A future leaders at an already-elite institution are thrown together for a full year? GS is more a cooperative cult than a competitive class.
“You don’t do GS for the academic[s],” said Geraldine Gassam ’07, an alumna of the course. “Really what I remember is all the stuff we did outside of class.”
‘The gloves had come off’
The pomp and circumstance start right away.
Before their first class, newly admitted GSers sit down with their professors and talk about expectations for the course. One semester ahead. Students introduce themselves: some are history majors, while others study theater; some are undergraduates, while others are in a Ph.D. program. The diversity is intentional.
And then, according to Gassam, Gaddis might address the talented twenty — as he did one recent year.
“You all seem very accomplished,” Gassam recalled Gaddis telling her class. “But don’t worry — you’ll find each other’s weaknesses and learn to use them against each other.”
That’s only the beginning.
The “big three” team-teach every class, engaging each other in debate even as they respond to students’ comments. Kennedy, Hill and Gaddis represent distinct locations on the political spectrum — left, right and center, respectively — and according to Hill, the professors disagree on virtually everything, even the definition of “Grand Strategy.”
“Students see that nobody gets away with anything easily,” Hill said. “You have to defend your positions.”
Such an antagonistic academic environment may not seem conducive to the bonding of the best and the brightest. But is it?
Since classes are roughly 60 percent undergraduates and 40 percent graduate- and professional-school students, barriers of age and experience initially prevent these two disparate groups from mingling.
“Socially, there is less integration of grads and undergrads in the first semester,” said Mina Alaghband ’08, a current GSer.
So not quite a cult but a court of elites, each representing a different background.
And students see the grad-undergraduate dichotomy as advantageous. According to Bromund, its official purpose is to achieve a balance of perspectives: Since undergraduates have a general education and graduate students are more focused, the class dynamic approaches a “best of both worlds.”
“You learn to benefit from, and deal with, strong personalities,” said Keith Urbahn ’06, a GS alumnus. “In Washington, that’s something you come across a lot.”
But as the year progresses, strong personalities forge strong friendships.
In the fall semester, students gather in small groups with the task of preparing a presentation on a pressing policy issue. After reading up on the topic, meeting three or four nights a week and submitting a written brief to the professors, the students speak to the “Murder Board” — a panel of the “big three,” plus one high-profile guest from outside Yale. The “Murder Board” rudely interrupts the students (being “cantankerous,” as Bill Fishel ’08 said), shooting them difficult questions that they must scramble to answer. For GSers, it’s the ultimate bonding experience.
“You are spending so much time with the other people in the group that you can’t help being close with them,” Alaghband said.
By the year’s end, Gaddis’ prophecy comes true. Students have learned important details about each other and dropped most inhibitions. The conversations become even livelier as new friendships allow students to sling personal — but good-natured — attacks.
“Most heated debates happened later in the year, when the students weren’t trying to impress the professors or each other anymore,” Gassam said. “The gloves had come off.”
‘Like Model UN — only better’
When David Brooks met with GSers in John Gaddis’ house in spring 2005, the animated dinner conversation did not focus on current government policy or his most recent book — instead, Brooks interrogated students about the Yale dating scene.
After giving a public lecture, Brooks attended a private function with “Grand Strategy” students and professors. Each semester, GS hosts roughly six dinners with distinguished guests in fields such as journalism, politics and business. Though students typically ask the guest questions about his or her career path, it made sense that Brooks — cultural commentator and coiner of the term “bobo” — would be fascinated by the romantic intrigues of the Ivy League.
Usually held at Mory’s, these dinners give students a chance to pick the brain of a professional.
“It’s like a Master’s Tea on steroids,” one former GSer said. “You have better food, better drinks and you get to interact for two hours with someone who’s having an impact in the world.”
Other recent guests have included Thomas Friedman, Stephen Cohen and John Negroponte ’60. According to Luong, the security surrounding Negroponte’s visit was intense.
“There were helicopters and dogs everywhere,” Luong said. “I had to deal with security for three hours for [Negroponte’s] one-hour meeting with GS.”
But Fishel was quick to add that the dinners feel more relaxed — more congenial — than the class meetings. After all, as Gassam observed, “the guests at Mory’s are not grading you.”
And students said they don’t feel the need to ingratiate themselves with guests. It’s too big of a group to attempt “networking” with any success.
“It’s not like you’re going to put it on your resume,” GS alumnus Pascal Noel ’06 said.
Through these events, students develop closer bonds than the classroom alone could foster. And perhaps inspired by the dinners, some students choose to organize out-of-class events on their own. Near the end of her first semester, Gassam organized a “GS girls’ night out” at Miya’s sushi restaurant. More recently, Alaghband and Anna Grotberg ’08, currently in GS, planned a gathering for GS women from both their class and the previous one. They sat around Alaghband’s apartment, enjoying tea and conversation.
Though the gender balance of the two most recent classes has been fairly even, in Gassam’s year there were only four female students to the 22 males.
“We definitely bonded over the fact that we were women,” she said.
The supposedly contrived gender balance in the class is well-known among the undergraduate students vying to get into GS. One female undergraduate spoke jokingly of the “token five female undergrads” who are accepted each year.
During the last two weeks of GS, the crisis simulation is the culminating out-of-class bonding experience. The students elect a simulated president and simulated vice president from among their ranks. They politic over instant messenger, promising a candidate their vote in return for a desirable cabinet appointment. But students said the election itself was lighthearted.
“It was a mix between a popularity contest and who has the best strategy,” Gassam said.
This year, the crisis simulation was held in the theater studies building on York Street, a particularly apt location for the role-playing that went on. The day’s task was to draft a national security statement explaining the “circumstances under which the U.S. would commit national forces in a humanitarian cause.” On the way, the simulated cabinet had to fashion its official response to Evel Knieval’s death, a professor performed a hilarious impersonation of the visiting King of Norway (after his Lutfisk lunch) and students — when they weren’t in character — alternately expressed frustration at the traps professors were throwing them and amusement at the event itself.
Said one student: “It’s like Model U.N. — only better!”
‘Networking in action’
In an interview, former GSer Santiago Suarez ’07 said he was skeptical about the social benefits of GS. For him, the class’ main value was purely intellectual. Other classes have great professors, and students can meet influential policy makers at Master’s Teas, he said.
Yet Suarez said he is currently dating a woman who took GS in 2006, the year after he did. And according to Gassam, his previous girlfriend was a GSer in 2004.
But that’s not an everyday occurrence.
“I can count the number of confirmed couples on one hand,” Luong said.
Even if GSers don’t always date each other, most GS alumni keep in touch after Yale. They e-mail each other with updates on their lives and gather occasionally for informal reunions. GS alumni living in Washington, D.C., have even formed an “alumni group,” composed of students, former faculty and post-doctoral fellows. They help each other get jobs and sometimes go on trips together.
When current GS student Victor McFarland GRD ’12 spent the summer at the National Archives in D.C. researching John F. Kennedy’s Middle East policy, he stayed with two former GSers.
“There’s the advantage of alumni networking in action,” McFarland wrote in an e-mail.
According to Luong, many former GSers become roommates after Yale. Because of the success of the D.C. alumni group, Luong is currently working to organize a similar contingent for alumni living in New York City.
“All of our alums say that they have made lifelong friends,” he said.
According to Bromund, Yale’s most generous donors are typically older and more financially established — graduates of the classes of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. But even they, who were not able to benefit personally from the relatively new “Studies in Grand Strategy” class, have taken an interest. Luong said other alumni have written checks to pay for a student’s textbook, train ticket or even formal business suit — the sartorial staple for most GS events.
“Alumni say they don’t want to have a student who is good enough not be able to partake in the course,” Luong said. “It’s a testament to how strongly they feel about GS.”
But not as strongly as some of The Chosen feel.
Gassam, for one, says GS fills the void for her left by her not being a member of a senior society.
The difference between her “society” and most others, she emphasized, was that her admission was based solely on merit, a fact that she mentioned with more than a hint of pride.
“Everyone who does GS is already so hyper-competitive and hyper-dedicated that they don’t really change because of the course,” said Rebecca Eisenbrey ’09. “ ‘Grand Strategy’ is in their blood.”