“I wanted to do something that gives back to this country and supports national security efforts… I get enjoyment out of knowing that I am supporting something greater than myself.”
-Schuyler Merritt (’15)
In this interview, we speak with Schuyler Merritt (’15), Project Manager at General Dynamics Information Technology, former IWP Student Government Association President, and former IWP Alumni Board Vice President. Schuyler currently runs the vetting and pre-screening operations for visa pre-checks for some of the more sensitive areas around the world.
Schuyler had just made it home, sat down, and opened a beer when he got the call to come back into work at 11:00 PM. There was another breaking national security threat.
This was not unusual. As a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, Schuyler’s office has been involved with quite a few situations that have appeared in the news over the last few years where extremist activities were uncovered or extremist incidents occurred. Whenever these incidents tied into international travel and the visa system, Schuyler’s contract has been involved; often his team.
Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa system
Since entering this field almost five years ago, Schuyler has been ready to support the mission of the national security community, whether it involves putting in extra hours to manage a particular incident or striving for excellence on a day-to-day basis. “It’s not glamorous, and it’s not always going to get you a bigger paycheck… It’s a lot of hard work and patience,” he commented. “Staying late, coming in at odd hours during an incident, challenging myself to perform above the standard, and helping others get to that same point.”
He has risen quickly from his first position as an analyst working on visa violator investigations for SRA International (which soon afterward became CSRA, now GDIT). Within a year, he was promoted to supervisor, running a team of second shift analysts who supported the core mission in support of law enforcement investigations regarding visa violations and specialized in open-source analysis and critical incident response.
The patience paid off. Within 2019, he was transferred to lead an advanced vetting team that focused solely on persons of significant interest and critical response issues. A few months later, Schuyler was promoted to a project supervisor role where he supported the three specialized teams that his company had on the contract, both the advanced vetting team and two others with very specific mission sets. And after a few weeks, Schuyler took on the role of project manager of their sister contract in charge of the other side of the visa question: pre-screening and pre-vetting visa applicants. He now runs the vetting and pre-screening operations for visa pre-checks for some of the more sensitive areas around the world.
A background in international issues, politics, and more
Schuyler was not new to D.C. when he embarked on this career in national security. “It’s more like my fourth career,” he commented. Indeed, by the time he arrived at IWP a few short years after graduating from college, he already had almost 20 years of experience with human rights, state and federal politics, and international affairs issues.
His father started in the banking industry and then spent over 40 years operating small- to medium-sized exploration businesses in the oil and gas industry. His mother was a war correspondent during the Vietnam War. She also covered the aftermath of the war, when the ethnic minority groups who supported U.S. efforts and covert operations in Laos during the war were left behind and had to escape to Thailand.
From around the age of five, Schuyler was actively involved in efforts to advocate for these refugees from Laos who came to build a new life in the U.S. He would haul documents around the Capitol building, help organize huge rallies in Washington, D.C., and give speeches. “It was what we did,” remembers Schuyler.
This experience was formative for Schuyler. He learned firsthand the complications involved in international affairs and it fostered in him a desire to serve our country in this realm in the future.
Before he came to IWP, Schuyler also had countless other experiences – serving as a volunteer with fire/EMS organizations, helping with his family’s farms, managing a major summer weekend music festival for 12 years, achieving a double bachelor’s in American Studies and Political Science, and studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. He also worked on some state and local political campaigns and spent two years as a research analyst for the Connecticut State Senate.
When he was ready to start working in international affairs and national security, he decided to start with graduate school.
Choosing a graduate school
He did some serious research before making the decision to attend IWP. “Having spent some time in D.C., I knew a lot about the big-name institutions that provided graduate degrees focused more on the rote learning process and preparing graduates to fit into stereotypical roles at the State Department, DoD, etc. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted a program that was in D.C. but challenged people’s preconceptions of what national security is, how national security policy is created, and what feeds into that process that we don’t normally think about.” Schuyler also wanted a program that had a pragmatic view of national security.
I wanted a program that was in D.C. but challenged people’s preconceptions of what national security is, how national security policy is created, and what feeds into that process that we don’t normally think about.
“I spoke to several close friends and colleagues who spent most of their careers in D.C,” remembers Schuyler. It happened that one of Schuyler’s mentors was Amb. Eugene Douglas, who had also been a mentor to IWP founder and president John Lenczowski when they were both serving in the Reagan administration. Through Amb. Douglas and other friends, Schuyler learned about IWP. “I was very interested to see that realistic, pragmatic, and almost philosophical approach to national security and the different aspects of hard and soft power that can be used toward a unified policy,” said Schuyler.
A realistic, big-picture education
Once at IWP – in addition to meeting his future wife Elizabeth at orientation – Schuyler enjoyed the “small class size and the ability to have solid, open conversations with fellow students, as well as the accessibility of the professors in and out of the classroom.”
However, the thing that struck him the most academically was the serious study of the broad range of factors that play into the psyche of policymakers. “I had witnessed some of that from campaigns and working in state government. My undergraduate education touched on some of these things but didn’t do a deep dive into things like Western moral tradition and the nuances of writing a national intelligence estimate. It was good to have the hands-on experience and to talk with people who had done this stuff.”
In one class, he, Elizabeth, and Prof. Bob Stephan (RIP) had a directed study in which they would meet to talk about issues that were affecting national strategy and the national psyche during the Vietnam era – a topic close to Prof. Stephan and Schuyler.
“In the academic world, a square peg fits in a square hole,” commented Schuyler. “But in real life, and especially in the intelligence world, you don’t necessarily have that match, and you have to find out how to translate a real problem into a workable solution, whether it is a policy, a research document, etc. If you get focused on the fact that a situation doesn’t match your expectations or concept of reality, you can lose the big picture and struggle to find a solution. That is where I felt like IWP did a good job, no matter what class it was. You get thrown so much information and have to cull through it while developing a cohesive response to the questions from professors and other students. You can’t just blow smoke because you have an opinion; you have to find answers that fit the reality that you are facing.”
In addition, IWP’s focus on a mission-first mentality has reinforced Schuyler’s belief that you should do what is right with no excuses: “Dr. L. emphasizes that you shouldn’t just be a yes-man, or avoid speaking the truth to power just because it is inconvenient. This can be difficult in a work setting, but vital.”
A focus on the national security mission
Schuyler brings this mission-first focus to work every day and helps instill it in his team, as well. In fact, he feels like one of his biggest impacts in his current career has been encouraging analysts on his teams to focus on the mission, which ultimately will help them, too: “If they are patient and remain on the team (and not just chase paychecks) long enough to be trained to really excel, they will have the skills to take on subject matter expert or leadership roles within any contract.” Many of the most capable analysts on Schuyler’s former team have taken on management positions on that contract or senior analyst positions on another contract.
He has enjoyed working with some fellow IWP alumni on his different teams. He comments, “The people who went to IWP and opened their mind to the bigger picture about the national security enterprise are often some of the hardest workers because they understand how their project fits into the broader effort.”