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Robert Callahan
College of Arts and Sciences

Class of 2014

“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Robert Callahan ’14 says.

“I’m a Son of the American Revolution. My family has been an active part of this country since its founding. I really wanted to do something to give back and say thank you for the opportunities it has presented to me,” he concludes.

To say thank you, Callahan decided to pursue a college education and join ROTC and the United States Army. While he is motivated to serve his country through military service, like all inquisitive Cornell students, Callahan wonders what motivates others.

“There is a lot of scholarship about why countries go to war with each other, but . . . there doesn’t seem to be that much about why Joe Schmoe gets up and fights, unless he was drafted, in which case he goes because he’s been compelled to go and views it as his patriotic duty,” says Callahan. “So I am investigating why an individual man or woman signs up to be a soldier despite knowing the risks associated with armed combat and why some of those people sign up again after experiencing combat firsthand.”

As a College Scholar, Callahan must complete a thesis. The title of Callahan’s research project is, “Why Fight? An Inquiry into the Motivations of a Soldier.”
“In the age of an all-volunteer military, this question is even more interesting because not a single person has signed up against their will,” he adds.

The importance of freedom

Callahan’s interest in ROTC and the military, along with the reputation of Cornell’s ROTC program, is what originally attracted him to the university. The College Scholar program’s academic independence also intrigued him.

“I decided to be a College Scholar because the program gives me the freedom to follow my academic interests wherever they may take me. This semester I’m taking a graduate-level seminar in statistics where everyone else is a PhD student in government, and I’m the only undergraduate. That’s what I like about the College Scholar program,” he says.

Callahan has the freedom to sit down and choose what he specifically wants to do each semester. “I can pick classes according to my personal desires and not because I’m ‘x’ major and I need to fulfill the requirements for that so I can graduate,” he says.

For Callahan, that freedom has led to courses in psychology, economics, history, statistics, game theory, and even robotics.

“My favorite courses haven’t been the ones I’ve done the best in but the ones I take on a whim,” he says.

During his first year at Cornell, Callahan took an honors MATLAB course in robotics.

“I probably was not qualified to take it at all,” he says.

Most of the students in his class were computer science majors. He was not. “But I had a great time,” he says. “I learned how to code very well, and I got to play with robots for a semester.”

Serving his country

Callahan learned even more during the summer of 2012, working in the Pentagon as an intern in the Joint Chiefs of Staff Deputy Directorate for Politico-Military Affairs: Europe, NATO, and Russia.

“I assisted the desk officers and the division chief with interactions with foreign militaries,” explains Callahan. “It was a lot of PowerPoint slides and looking over what the official U.S. government stance was on an issue regarding a particular country . . . making sure we were relaying that position in our communications.”

His Pentagon internship also gave him the opportunity to draft talking points for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a meeting with a foreign defense chief.

“Granted, I wasn’t briefing the talking points and didn’t get to meet the chairman, but it was very rewarding to have the opportunity to shape U.S. policy in a real way that I could point to and say ‘I wrote this,’” he says.

Callahan has a four-year commitment to the Army after graduation, but at its conclusion he could enter the private sector workforce or remain in the military. Whether he maintains a military career or pursues work elsewhere, Callahan says his Pentagon experience was highly valuable.

“Because most of the people at the Pentagon are career military officers at the end of their careers,” he says, “they had a lot of good advice and feedback for me since I’m just beginning my career.”

It was advice he’ll take.