Established in 2020, Military Affiliated Students of Harris advocates for service members while it works to bridge the civilian-military gap in public policy and beyond.
The logo for Military Affiliated Students of Harris (MASH)

After six years of U.S. Army service that included several deployments to Iraq, Seamus Murphy, MPP Class of 2024, earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, worked in consulting, then enrolled at the Harris School of Public Policy in 2022.

He’d heard about a Harris student organization, knew that it had powerful, direct relevance to his life and a broader significance at the school and joined right away.

The organization is Military Affiliated Students of Harris (MASH), a relatively new but increasingly important group that, among other pursuits, advocates for veterans at Harris and bridges the civilian-military gap. For a Friday and Saturday in January, MASH demonstrated that bridge building with an experiential exercise that drew dozens of students from across Harris.

“I think it's valuable to continue to act as a torchbearer for the veteran community at a school where folks might not be exposed to veterans very often,” said Murphy, MASH president this year. Research shows that veterans make up 1-2 percent of college students at elite institutions; roughly 6 percent at universities overall. “It’s valuable to advocate for a seat at the table at Harris and in the UChicago community, writ large,” he added.

As a small, federally protected population, veterans have specific issues that need advocacy, Murphy said. MASH serves that advocacy role and empowers students to learn about all the available resources “to have a quintessential UChicago experience,” Murphy said.

“And we want to get folks employed in whatever sector they want to work in,” he added. “It’s really about ensuring that a channel of support exists for veterans across Harris and the wider community.”

Established in 2020, MASH was an effort “to get more veterans engaged in the field of public policy,” founder Zackariah Crahen, MPP’22, said at the time. In addition to coordinating the recent, two-day experiential exercise, MASH hosts quarterly town halls for members and promotes Harris as a veteran-friendly graduate school. MASH also works with the Office of Military Affiliated Communities and other campus organizations on presenting events.

Beyond serving those important functions for veterans at Harris, MASH represents a valuable presence on campus that exposes the entire UChicago community to a military perspective and the people who identify with the services, Murphy and other MASH members said.

“It’s just good to have that perspective and understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all with veterans,” he said. “It’s an affinity group that’s tied into everyone else’s experience and identity as a person but it’s a piece of them. I think it’s good for individuals who are not familiar with the Department of Defense to have exposure to individuals who are.”

Navigating a strategic crisis

Madison Moreau, MPP Class of 2025, is a member of MASH whose father serves in the Navy. She heard about MASH her first week at Harris and, after interacting with other members, joined the organization later in the quarter.

“I think it’s important for all groups to be represented and to have a space to interact with other members of the community in order to foster diversity in beliefs, jobs, and identities,” Moreau said of the organization’s significant role on campus.

She acknowledged that she is “biased positively” toward the military community and fully appreciates that people have a different view.

“I think they're allowed to have their opinions but, interacting with a group of people who are awesome I think is incredibly important to rounding out anybody's opinions,” she said. “I think MASH does that.”

And she said she hopes that MASH continues to present events similar to the two-day event she attended in January in the Keller Center: the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE).

A collaboration with the U.S. Army War College, ISCNE for the second consecutive year brought together about 60 people for the experiential diplomatic simulation in which students are divided into teams representing various countries attempting to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a thorny regional predicament. This year’s exercise centered on the Arctic, a region rich in natural resources. As climate change makes it more navigable, the Arctic is growing in strategic importance for Russia, China, Canada, the U.S., and Scandinavian nations.

“This event was great,” said Moreau, who was on the Denmark team, “and I think more like this—maybe not at the scale of ISCNE—would be really significant for MASH bringing in people who are not just invested in international security but just curious about military life as a whole.”

Although the exercise was demanding, participants ISCNE was energizing. They valued the practical application of the theories they learn at Harris and were able to strengthen leadership and negotiating skills, strategic thinking, team building and time management, among others. Hosting ISCNE also builds on Harris’s growing reputation as a leader in global conflict resolution and develops a valuable partnership with the Army War College, which has been presenting various scenarios of international crisis negotiation exercises on college campuses since 2003.

‘Agents of change’

This year’s ISCNE was the second for Zhixin Cao, MPP Class of 2024. His presence exemplified MASH’s capacity to bring together civilian and military students at Harris. Cao is not affiliated with the military and is not a MASH member.

This year, he served in the Russian delegation. He participated in both years’ exercises, he said, to more fully understand world problems and the needs and demands of countries, and how international organizations can develop accordingly.

Cao said he is utilizing that knowledge to build toward his professional goal of establishing a realistic pathway for global decarbonization, which he views as a way to achieve sustainable global development and de-escalate international conflicts and tensions.

“There will always be a point where international law and international organizations cannot reach consensus,” he said. “That’s why there’s a need for negotiation.”

Cao also noted that negotiations often fall short, but he is interested in finding a point at which “the majority of parties agree to disagree. That, I think, is the most important perspective of this kind of practice.”

Although the exercise was a sobering lesson in the strategy of “deterrence theory”—the suggestion of force—to achieve peace, Cao said he was inspired by how ISCNE “made us believe that we actually can be agents of change.”

And he views MASH’s role as crucial in the Harris community, primarily because the military exercises the will of the people and governments, which often result from policy decisions. No gap should exist between the civilian and military population, he said.

“Everyone wears their own uniform,” Cao added. “We all have our jobs and responsibilities. In the end, we are all human beings and MASH is a great attempt to let students see military personnel at a close distance and to understand each other.”

Giving back to his alma mater

MASH and ISCNE carry particular significance to Army Col. Joshua Glonek, MPP’12. The weekend exercise, when he worked as a mentor to the Denmark team, was his first visit to campus since completing his master’s degree work.

Although he has participated in similar crisis exercises, the MASH exercise was the first ISCNE for Glonek, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and veteran of two combat deployments in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

“It was a huge event for me,” he said. Glonek was excited to support the Army War College and give back to—and reconnect with—Harris in a collaboration between the two institutions.

He was struck by students’ energetic engagement applying theoretical lessons. He also noted that about half of the student participants were unaffiliated with the military, which gave those students the chance to interact with military-affiliated students and active military leaders.

That interaction enhances understanding and appreciation.

Fundamentally, the U.S. military reflects American society and is made up of Americans from all over the country, Glonek said. It is extremely important that the military “isn’t some separate entity,” he added.

That cohesion is crucial to an understanding among all Americans that maintaining the level of national security the U.S. has experienced for decades requires military people willing to make enormous sacrifices.

“When the next conflict breaks out,” Glonek said, “and the president of the United States decides to commit the military, we have to be prepared for that and that can only happen if America invests its people to serve in the armed forces. I think it’s important that is brought to the front of folks’ minds.”

Beyond building a healthy military-civilian relationship, MASH and ISCNE may be broadening Harris students’ perspective on career options, Glonek said.

“These are super talented, the best and brightest, highly motivated men and women,” he said of Harris students. “We want many of them to come to work in the government in any capacity, whether that’s the State Department or the Defense Department or on Capitol Hill. And I think the exercise opened their eyes to what it’s like to work in government. That was really important as well.”