Interview with Dr. Maggie Dwyer ’04

Dr. Maggie Dwyer is a Lecturer in Africa and International Development at The University of Edinburgh

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from your favorite memory at UMW or just anything you want to talk about?
I grew up in Texas, and then I moved to Virginia to attend Mary Washington. I can’t remember the exact dates, but I was there from 2000 until 2004. And then, I did a double major, I did political science, and I also did psychology. And then I stayed in Fredericksburg for some time, another maybe six years after that I worked for the US government before then moving on to to Scotland, where I’m on base now.

2. What made you choose you UMW?
I guess because I was interested in politics, then. I liked that it was near Washington, DC. I liked that it was a smaller school. A lot of the state schools, especially in Texas are huge. And so I guess, coming from Texas, I liked the history of the US East Coast and Mary Washington and so when I visited it, just the whole environment and the the history of the campus and, and the region, in general, it really attracted me and I got just a good sense.

3. What have you been doing post graduation, like going into graduate school and then going into your professional career?
So, after Mary Washington, I got hired by the US Department of Defense. I worked as a intelligence analyst at Quantico, at the base of north of Fredericksburg. I did that for about six years. And while I was working for the Department of Defense, I also got my master’s degree at Syracuse. And then I quit that job and moved to Scotland to get my PhD in African Studies. And then after I finished my PhD, I got hired at the same university as a professor.

4. Why did you choose Scotland? Was there a particular program?
Yeah, so the, I guess the study of Africa is done generally kind of differently in the US versus in Europe. And the program that I’m in is now it’s probably about the largest African Studies program in Europe. And usually in the US programs, they will combine their area studies. Like, the study of Africa is within a disciplinary, so politics or anthropology, but in a lot of European universities, they kind of have it as a standalone and I really liked that approach of really focusing almost solely on Africa using theories of course from other disciplines. So it was just a place that was also English speaking of course, it’s a great city there’s other probably comparable programs in London but I personally liked Scotland’s a little bit more in terms of its livability as a city compared to London. So then I did my PhD degree here that took about four years and then I just really enjoyed it here and stayed on as a professor.

5. What was your experience like starting your career and applying to graduate schools after UMW? And how did you UMW education prepare you for life after college?
I didn’t go directly to graduate school afterwards. And in some ways, I think, ultimately, that was probably to my advantage, because when I worked for the federal government, they ended up paying for my master’s degree. So that was a very nice, kind of added advantage. I didn’t quite what I wanted to do after Mary Washington, but I think what Mary Washington did well, was kind of give me a broad education that I was able to then kind of use in a professional environment. Having the double major and having a broad range of courses and experiences at Mary Washington allowed me to apply to a wider range of jobs. And then I think within that, then I was able to kind of find what I really was passionate about, which was the study of Africa, and then use that broad education background to then continue to narrow farther down. So my master’s degree was a little bit more narrow. And then my PhD was kind of the most specialized.

6. We’ve talked about your research expertise, specifically in Africa, and why did you choose to follow that area? And how did UMW influence or help you make those decisions?
I think Mary Washington, and the liberal arts education kind of helps you see, you know, what you’re interested in. And also what you’re not interested in some of the classes you take, because you have to, and then you realize that’s really not my thing, but I still learned about it, and I had to and that’s fine. And that makes me realize I want to move on to something different. So then, when I was hired for the Department of Defense, they specifically asked me what area I would be interested in. I told them that I’d be interested in Africa, but that I’ve never been there and I don’t have a specific expertise on that. “It’s just an area I’m interested in.” And at the time, so that was in 2004, most people going into the Department of Defense wanted to work on the Middle East because of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that would have been maybe the more career advancing area to be in. So in some ways, I think by identifying the area that most people didn’t want to work in, I might have been even more appealing to them. So I was hired. And they did give me that the area that I’ve asked for, which was very small at the time, and very few people were focused on it. But by focusing on Africa for Department of Defense, it then allowed me to travel to the area, that area that I focused on was West Africa, they did become much more prominent within the security dialogue, especially around terrorism. US military became much more engaged and at a personal level that also, I guess, helped my career because I then did become an expert on a topic that was of growing interest, which very few people were studying. And then I think, because that job allowed me to travel to Africa more, it helps, I guess, solidify that that was really what I was interested in. Multiple times I was asked to move to other geographic regions, they needed expertise on something else. And I really said I’d really prefer not to I like this area.

I think, because the more I traveled there through that job, the more I kind of realized that the job required a fairly narrow focus. The focus was on US security interest in Africa, pretty much period, and that became increasingly terrorism. And I increasingly got kind of frustrated with that, because I felt like I wanted to study Africa in a much deeper context. I wasn’t that interested in tracking terrorists, it just wasn’t what I was interested in anymore. So with that, I then moved on to the PhD because it gave me kind of complete independence to do what I wanted to do on what I was interested in. And for me, that’s been kind of the best part of academia, is the ability to really focus on what I find interesting. And I get to teach in a way that I feel is more representative of how I view Africa and African continent than the way that the US military views it. But all that being said, I don’t think I would have gotten to that point, if I hadn’t have gone through those other areas. And working for department of defense was a really good job for me, because of what it exposed me to. And because even today, I’m still focused on African security, it’s still my specialization. I think I wouldn’t have ever even known about that or had the confidence to really do it. And so that I bring that background to what I teach now on African security, but I have a lot more, I guess, independence to do that in to focus on what parts of Africa security that I think is most important, which is not always aligned with what the US government thinks. Looking at a more broad perspective, rather than just terrorism.

7. On your bio on the University of Annenberg website, it mentioned your research project titled, “Return from Peacekeeping Mission Effects on Veterans, States, and Communities”. What is that about? And also, what are some other research projects you’ve been working on?
Yeah, so the project I’m working on now is exactly as you said. So that project is looking at African soldiers that come back from peacekeeping missions. So the idea is that, in an African context, peacekeeping has become the main deployment that African soldiers go on. And they’re deploying these at a very large scale, Western soldiers generally do not do peacekeeping anymore. Western countries, including the US fund peacekeeping, they rarely send their own troops. So most of the peacekeeping troops are coming from, you could say, the global south or the less developed countries, including Africa. And this has been going on, you know, now for 20 years, and increasingly, the last 10 years, and peacekeeping missions have gotten increasingly dangerous. So what the project looks at is what happens to these soldiers when they come back from these missions. We know a lot about combat effects on Western soldiers. Because we have a whole Veteran Affairs, we have a lot of information, a lot of research, we know the types of support that veterans get when they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. We know almost nothing about what happens to soldiers in an African context, and we’re coming back to very underdeveloped contexts. So one is going to have about their personal level, how, what kind of support what kind of challenges do they have? Or what kind of advantages because peacekeeping in an African context is paid a lot more. So people want to go on peacekeeping missions, they can make really a lot of money because it’s UN pay, not home country pay. So it’s also about how can individuals use that experience to better the lives of their families to build a better future for themselves? Or what kind of challenges do they have in in doing that? So it’s really, I guess, shifting the focus from how do peacekeeping missions work, which there’s a lot of research on that. And it’s really important, and there’s a lot of downsides to peacekeeping, as well as upsides. And this is looking at the longer term effects. So if the African continent is deploying 10s of 1000s of soldiers every year on peacekeeping, what will this mean for these communities in the long term? And what does it mean for African states to have this continual deployment to combat zones over a long period? So I’m looking across five different African countries and have already done interviews in a number of them so but this has now been been delayed with with COVID.
But yeah, the last round I did was a In February, right before things closed down, I was in Sierra Leone and did several dozen interviews with returning veteran soldiers from peacekeeping and talked to them about their experience. I also talked to their family members, oftentimes, their wife’s about what it’s also like to have your your partner who deploys. And generally African countries do not give much support to families or to. So how do those individuals kind of cope? How does a family cope with this? And in worst cases, how do they cope with either an injury or fatality as well, in an environment where there’s simply not the structures in place too often to kind of adequately prepare people for this? So and so that project is ongoing, it’s been delayed, but I’ve done two rounds of the field research. And we’ll hope to do more when when we can travel again. And the project that I have a couple other projects, one is looking more specifically at international military aid to African countries. So there’s a large increase in generally Western military training programs to African countries. I won’t go into as much detail as the other, but it’s basically what what are the effects of Western military training to African countries? Especially in environments where these militaries are often not professional in the environment that we might expect them to? What is the long term effect of this, to have potentially strong militaries in what’s often fragmented or even a weak state? Is there the possibility, for example, that you’re building militaries that are only propping up a authoritarian regime, for example. So those are two kind of ongoing projects. And the other is, in some ways, quite different. It’s actually on social media in Africa, and the way that social media is affecting the political environment. So colleagues and I, last year, published an edited volume about that about a wide range of uses of social media in a political context in Africa. So those are probably the three main projects that I have funding to be doing and are ongoing now.

8. If you could give one piece of advice to your undergraduate self, what would it be?
I think probably, maybe to have been more open to a either a wider range of possibilities or more open to the uncertainty of working. Because as an undergraduate, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined myself sitting here in living in Scotland as a professor studying Africa because I never, as I said, even took a course on Africa and I think at the undergraduate level, I kind of only thought about jobs that I knew of. And I felt quite a high degree of stress of trying to figure out what I would do and I didn’t have the context to even know about many of the jobs were. Even when I got hired by a Department of Defense, I don’t come from a military background. That was just a complete chance as well, I wouldn’t have known that these opportunities were available. So I did well in my studies, but I think I probably did worry too much at the undergraduate level about where things would leave me, when in fact, all of the opportunities that I’ve gotten were nothing that I would have even envisioned at that time. So even though I did get to these stages, I probably worried a little bit too much about the path when in fact, things sort of somehow did fall into place. And I found what I feel like I was meant to do, which wouldn’t even have crossed my mind as an as an undergraduate. But I think it is important to be open to maybe not knowing where you’re going to go next.