Liu, who is about to head to Iraq as a US military intelligence officer, says that studying at Cambridge has helped give her that wider, more nuanced picture. “The army is now learning a new mindset for dealing with population-centric counterinsurgency operations which is less about black and white, clear-cut solutions and more about the grey areas, which is much more the Cambridge way,” she says.
Liu studied for an MPhil at Cambridge in 2006/7 and says her time in the UK had a deep, invaluable impact, but in ways that are difficult to express.
As a Gates scholar, she met brilliant students from all over the world who had different perspectives on many different things. This opened up her mind to new ways of seeing the world. She has clearly, however, always been the kind of person who likes to be challenged.
Her decision to apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York is a case in point. Despite the fact that her family was initially against her going into the military, she felt drawn to it because she felt the need to challenge herself.
She applied after studying at Virginia’s Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies and says she had been interested in the military since she was a child. “I had a romantic idea about service and camaraderie,” she says. Academically, she knew she was strong, but for her West Point was about developing “the whole person” and she felt it would force her “out of my comfort zone”.
When she got to West Point she realised many of her preconceptions about life in the military were untrue, but she discovered other aspects that appealed to her. “I loved the environment and the sense of belonging to something. The service element was also important – I wanted to give back to my country,” she says. The faculty at West Point also played an important part in persuading her she had made the right decision. “They were great role models,” she says. “They had a very hands-on approach. It was almost as if I had been adopted into their family. They really took an interest in me. It’s a unique place, just like Cambridge.”
Several entries on the Internet describe Liu, whose parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan in the 1970s, as the first Chinese American to graduate as valedictorian from West Point, but she is keen to play this down. “I always feel uncomfortable with these kinds of labels,” she says. “I have never seen myself as a pioneer for women or for Asian Americans.”
She is also modest about her other extra-curricular activities, which include recruiting other cadets to start a “We the People” civic education programme at a local high school, helping to coordinate overseas and Department of Defense schools’ participation in National Student/Parent Mock Election, being head manager of West Point’s track and cross-country team and spending six weeks teaching maths in Lesotho.
Liu had been interested in early US history and constitutionalism from high school. At West Point she majored in both US history and politics and she was keen to expand her academic horizons. She applied to Cambridge in part because, she says, it was “the polar opposite of West Point”. “West Point is very structured and regimented with a heavy core curriculum,” she says. At Cambridge, where she was accepted to do an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History in 2006, she had just one seminar a week for the first two terms. She admits it was a bit of a culture shock and she took some time to get used to it. In fact, she says that for the first term she tried to turn Cambridge into West Point by packing out her day with sports and lectures. She got a better balance in the second and third terms and enjoyed Cambridge for its difference from West Point. “West Point lacks the informal, intellectual culture of Cambridge where you have the time and freedom to explore academic interests and linger over casual conversations,” she says. “As a person I really mellowed out at Cambridge and it made me a better officer. I am sure my experience will help in my work in Iraq as well.”
She returned to complete officer training in 2007, but says having been at Cambridge changed her perspective on things. From 2008 to 2009, she was deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) where she served in the brigade intelligence section and as a platoon leader for signals intelligence and human intelligence soldiers. In April, she will head to Iraq to work in the headquarters of United States Forces-Iraq, the combined headquarters for all US operations in Iraq. She says she is looking forward to the opportunity to work on the commanding general’s staff. “I will be a very junior member of a senior staff,” she says, typically modest. “But it’s a chance to support decision-making at a high level and be part of the debate.”
She downplays any danger to herself, saying that “danger is relative” and that being a staff officer is mainly office based.
She hopes eventually to be able to teach at West Point, but continue to serve as a military intelligence officer.