Below is a transcript of a video in which James Stoeffel (’20) discusses his time before and at IWP, his current work, and the films he is helping to create. He also shares career advice for those with a liberal arts background interested in the cyber field.
Please tell us more about your background before IWP.
I went to Gettysburg College. I was a history and international affairs double major. Then I did ROTC, so that sent me right into the Army. I spent three years at Fort Bragg as a Field Artillery Officer. I familiarized myself with the targeting process, which is analogous to how field artillery targets things and the intelligence community does. I had in my mind that I could translate that skill set to the intelligence community or at least somewhere in the national security space. But I also knew I wanted to return to school as I had the GI Bill in my pocket.
How did you discover IWP?
I had seen a couple of gentlemen with a banner for The Institute of World Politics at Gettysburg during a career fair for graduate schools. They talked to me. They seemed very mission-oriented, which attracted me, and I submitted an application as soon as I got out of the Army.
What made you choose IWP over other graduate schools?
The emphasis on the Western civilization portion of The Institute of World Politics and how career-oriented it was attracted me. I didn’t see it in other places, and the school seemed more geared to getting professionals where they needed to be.
How was the transition from the Army back into academia?
I remember asking my professor for permission to go to the bathroom, and he said, “You’re a grown man. You can go.” There are funny things like that, but you get used to having a little less structure, and there’s a community of veterans in the school. Many professors are prior service, so folks speak the language. It was an easy change for me, and a great place for transitioning veterans to get an education.
What was it like simultaneously starting work and attending IWP?
I came out of the military with a clearance and began a pretty cool gig managing records for FBI case files — entry-level work that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted for my career but kept money in the door while in school. IWP is great about having a schedule that lets you attend in person but still have time for your day job. Students knock out their career development during the day and come at night and get a degree.
Please tell us more about your experience after that position.
I worked as a federal contractor at the FBI and gained more analysis experience. I then hopped around for a few years as a contractor working at multiple agencies. I was at the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] for a while doing document and media exploitation. Then market forces pushed me into the cybersecurity space. I was with the DOD CIO [Department of Defense Chief Information Officer] for a bit, cutting my teeth on writing for the government at a high level, building coalitions among an interagency group of different stakeholders, and practicing, as we say at IWP, “full spectrum statecraft.” It’s fun to see four or five agencies with different remits, authorities, and desired outcomes gather to accomplish a more singular line of effort.
Has your IWP education been helpful to you in the big picture?
It has. All of us are in a tiny corner of government, so I kept in mind IWP’s watchword of full spectrum statecraft. You’re the flute player in the larger orchestra. I came out of IWP with what is missing in many corners of government, a limiting principle. What is it you do? Many folks focus on doing more, broadening the scope, whereas now I have a deeper appreciation for recognizing and doing my role well in the larger symphony.
Were there any specific classes that you particularly enjoyed at IWP?
The most illuminating for me was the Western Moral Tradition with Professor Wood. The school recognizes that American and Western liberal democracies have tremendous soft power to export our values through narrative-generating institutions, media, film, and literature. But you can’t leverage that if you don’t know your values, so in the course, we debated the idea of what is a good life, what is a life well lived, and what is your life with the state. From Greek thought and Roman civics to the Declaration and the Constitution, you become more comfortable exporting your values or shaping the world for those values to flourish, which is essentially what foreign policy is. If you don’t have that foundational basis, it’s hard to fight for those values abroad, and I hope more schools take a page from IWP on that.
How have these ideas influenced other areas of your life?
I have two good friends who made filmmaking their careers, and I noticed this connection between the Western Civilization dynamic I learned and storytelling. That background in moral and intellectual history gives you many tools to tell a story and know why you’re telling it — similar to exporting our values into the world through foreign policy. The protagonist is trying to accomplish something, prioritizing some values over others. So, the story we want to tell is a comedy in the vein of a jiāngshī film, analogous to the vampire myth. The Chinese Communist Party put a lid on this genre, so we’re intersecting Eastern and Western vampire hunters in the backdrop of the Red Revolution to hopefully land on themes of freedom of religion by exploring both cultures’ views on the vampire myth.
What is the biggest type of impact that you’ve made?
I’m the stick-in-the-mud guy when priorities frequently change with the political winds.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to improve my craft, writing policy and plans for government.
What should people know about cyber?
Cyber is a critical and exciting place to be with a deep bench of technical expertise in the United States, especially in the private sector. These companies underpin our critical infrastructure. I am carving out a role as a liberal arts humanities type who can put pen on paper, turning technical information into a format that a policy or decision-maker can digest. You don’t need to be a hacker or coder to work in cybersecurity.
Do you have any advice for undergrads who are looking at graduate schools?
Look at IWP. Learn that the price tag doesn’t match the value. Ask if this is worth another student loan. Ask if this is worth my time, and does it get my foot into the door professionally. Does the school let me work full-time? That’s what I’d look for at graduate schools.
Do you have any advice for a student starting their career at IWP?
I would be in receive mode. It’s a firehose of information. Faculty have real-world experience. It’s rare to get an opportunity to sit down and learn and have someone walk you through the foundational texts you need to know to advance your career and hone your craft. Take every advantage while you’re there.
What advice do you have for students who are from a liberal arts, national security, or international affairs background who are interested in cyber?
You can carve out a space for yourself without being a technical expert. There is space for someone who does not speak ones and zeros to take technical concepts and make them digestible for policymakers and decision-makers to enhance cybersecurity.
Have your films won any awards?
We’ve won the Best Comedy Best Feature Audience Award for a silly film we did about beavers. We’ve done 12 or 15 festivals in the last couple of months, including in Brazil, Mexico, and going to Japan, Brussels, and Switzerland.
Are you planning to do any award-winning films in conjunction with IWP?
We’d love to. We’re leveraging expertise here to help us tell a true story with our most recent film. What does the Intermarium region look like in 1920? Who are the stakeholders in the Russian Civil War? What’s the relationship between the Bolsheviks and Orthodox churches in this space?