Denise Der, SSP'15
Assistant Research Director, Office of Net Assessment, Department of Defense
Each year, the Center for a New American Security brings together a diverse group of people from a wide array of firms, departments and agencies to participate in the Shawn Brimley Next Generation National Security Leaders Program. A competitive fellowship that seeks out people with unique perspectives and expertise, the CNAS Next Gen Program provides fellows the opportunity to share their knowledge, learn from experts in the field, and—in non-pandemic times—travel abroad to speak with government officials around the world. In February, SSP alumna Denise Der – who currently works as the Assistant Research Director in the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment – was selected to join 25 other aspiring leaders in the national security field as the Class of 2021.
A Chicago area native, Denise completed her undergraduate studies at Boston College, where her political science classes inspired an interest in the field of national security. After completing undergrad, Denise joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Nueva Valencia, a fishing village in the Guimaras province of the Philippines, to serve as an English teacher at a local high school. The experience, she reflects, was an incredible opportunity to view the world in a different light. But it was also a formative moment in her path towards a career in security studies. During her time teaching in Nueva Valencia, tensions flared between the Philippines and China over disputed territory, leading to the Scarborough Shoal standoff. Denise witnessed firsthand how China loomed over its neighboring country, projecting its power and casting a shadow even over a small village far from the incident itself.
Denise started SSP in 2013 and chose the international security concentration, where she focused primarily on security issues related to China. Her Chinese-American heritage fostered a cultural awareness of China from a young age that developed into an academic interest in Chinese politics and Chinese foreign policy as an undergraduate, and her experience in the Philippines encouraged her to pursue a career in better understanding China’s interests and how they relate to the United States. While she found SSP to be largely oriented around counter-terrorism at the time, Denise was still able to pursue her interest in China and also gained knowledge on the U.S. military and interests, which she could balance with her regional knowledge. Through a summer grant, she also had the opportunity to travel to Kunming in southwest China, where she took intensive Chinese language classes and explored the region for ten weeks. “It was an incredible opportunity to leverage what I studied in classes at SSP,” she says of the experience.
Beyond her studies, the relationships she formed during her time at SSP have left a lasting impact that has endured past her graduation. She still keeps in touch with her classmates – all of whom have become busy working professionals – and on occasion runs into some of them at the Pentagon. Professor Tom McNaugher, her 501 professor, has become a continuous source of support in both her career and her personal life, always pushing her to try harder and holding her accountable for the goals that she set for herself.
The CNAS Next Gen Program marks another milestone in her career, an opportunity to expand connections and expertise and explore new facets of national security. “Although I don’t know my fellow cohort members yet, I’m looking forward to getting to know them and their interests and expertise,” she says. “CNAS is an organization that I’ve always admired – they empower junior members of their staff and elevate their work, so I’m looking forward to interacting with and learning from them more, too.”
For current and future SSP students, Denise offers these two pieces of advice: “When you’re looking for jobs, don’t limit your search to only government jobs. There are many ways to serve, and getting a job with the government shouldn’t be an indicator of success. Also, make sure to take advantage of DC as a student. Talk to alumni, seek out local internships and fellowships, and find events around town to attend. There is so much to your grad school experience beyond campus.”