How Nunn School Alumnus' Circuitous Path Led to Academia

Primary tabs

Bobby O'Keefe was a sophomore at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Georgia, when he realized that his parents were not sending him to college. 

“At that point, it was up to me to figure out my path,” recalled O'Keefe, a Sam Nunn School of International Affairs alumnus. 

O'Keefe did not come from a military family, yet he had joined his high school's Navy Junior ROTC program (NJROTC). It was in the NJROTC program, where he learned about military appointments and scholarship opportunities available. 

“I did not have an idea of what, specifically, I wanted to pursue, but the military option seemed the best one to earn my degree and experience the world,” said O'Keefe. “I was fortunate to earn a four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship, which led me to Georgia Tech's Detachment 165.”

The detachment trains cadets who attend Georgia Tech and 11 other metro Atlanta colleges and universities to become officers in the Air Force and U.S. Space Force.

During his studies at Tech, O'Keefe enjoyed taking classes with John Endicott, an emeritus professor in the Nunn School. Endicott joined the Nunn School following a 31-year career in government, 28 of which were served in the Air Force. 

“I remember taking several classes from him as an undergrad and thinking that his full Air Force career coupled with his Ph.D. made for a great combination to bring real-world experience to academia,” said O'Keefe. “At that time, I did not have any idea how or even if that was a path I could pursue, but he did influence me to keep my eyes and options open."

“I certainly was not inclined (nor ready) for graduate school immediately following my undergrad experience, but it was a combination of learning, observing, and mentors pouring into met.”

Following graduation in 2000, O'Keefe commissioned in the U.S. Air Force and spent the last 20 years on active duty in various roles. 

“I did not plan to stay in the military for a career, but as time passed and my career progressed, staying the course seemed the best decision for my family and me,” he explained. “I thought I would leave the Air Force in 2009, but they selected me to become a Foreign Area Officer (FAO), and later to earn my master's degree at the Naval Postgraduate School.”

As an FAO, O'Keefe represented the U.S. abroad and was responsible for fostering peace, supporting prosperity, and protecting American citizens. Remaining in the military allowed O'Keefe to grow professionally through 14 different assignments, four deployments, and two overseas tours (Tokyo, Japan, and Paris, France). He was also able to attend the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), where he began considering academia. 

“It was at SAASS that I learned how to critically read, analyze, and synthesize a vast amount of information. I also learned that I have a knack for writing,” said O'Keefe. “The faculty there was amazing, and one of my thesis advisors planted the bug in my ear that I ought to seriously consider a terminal degree.”

After completing his degree in 2015, O'Keefe returned to operations and commanding a squadron. Still, he always thought about a career in academia. 

Fortunately for him, the Air War College, the Air Force's senior professional development school at Maxwell Air Force Base, was soliciting officers to earn a doctorate to join its faculty and academic leadership.

The mission of the Air War College is to educate senior military and civilian partners to take on roles as senior national security leaders. It trains more than 200 students each year from each U.S. military services, federal agencies, and 45 allied nations around the world.

“With my background in international affairs, as an FAO, and having graduated SAASS, I thought this was my calling to round out my career and perhaps bridge to the next.”

In spring 2020, O'Keefe was accepted into American University's School of International Service program where he is now pursuing his Ph.D. in International Relations. Following graduation, he will join the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., as a professor. 

“My path to academia was anything but pre-determined,” said O'Keefe. “Instead, it was a function of my own personal and professional progress experienced through a 20-year career. I certainly was not inclined (nor ready) for graduate school immediately following my undergrad experience, but it was a combination of learning, observing, and mentors pouring into met.”


  • Workflow Status:
  • Created By:
  • Created:
  • Modified By:
  • Modified:

Target Audience

    No target audience selected.