Jacquelyn Bengfort Profile
Jacquelyn Bengfort (North Dakota & Wolfson 2006) is writer based in the District of Columbia. She writes on topics ranging from education to the military, gender to fictional post-apocalyptic worldscapes. Previously, she served in the United States Navy on USS Bataan and USS Shoup, where her responsibilities included high-risk deck operation, personnel management, and navigation. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford, and a BS in English from the United States Naval Academy.
Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What were significant experiences for you?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: My time at Oxford was just a huge change for me. I was an undergraduate at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where everything is very set—you get all your meals served; people take your laundry away, wash it, bring it back; you have a curfew and you have very limited time away from school. To go from that environment to Oxford, which is comparatively very unstructured, was a little overwhelming at first.
I also got married right before coming to Oxford, so I was also adjusting to being a newlywed and living with somebody else all the time. My husband and I signed up for the Wolfson Bar Rota, and that was one of our defining experiences as a newlywed couple. Every week or two we walked down to the Wolfson College Pub and pulled pints and met students from all over the world.
Rhodes Project: While at Oxford, you completed the MPhil in Social Anthropology. How did this academic degree fit with your career projects afterwards?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: To be completely honest, it didn’t. In 2006, I think the U.S. Military was really interested in anthropology as a discipline. It was a few years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the military was having a hard time understanding people, cultures and social structures. There was this idea to get anthropologists more involved, basically as cultural interpreters, but most anthropologists were refusing to work with the military because it was a conflict ethically. Anthropological knowledge has a history of being abused by military forces. I thought that maybe somehow I could bridge that divide by being both a naval officer and an anthropologist. But by the time I actually had the degree and got back to the U.S., it seemed everybody had moved on from that idea. So, initially, in my career, I did what I would have done if I never went to Oxford: I learned to be a naval officer, I learned to drive and defend a warship, and I went on some deployments. But social anthropology informed my way of thinking and approaching a problem. It certainly opened up my worldview.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about your work as a writer? What inspired your interest in journalism, poetry, short stories and other forms of writing?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: ‘Writer’ is probably the first career I ever answered with when people would ask me as a child, although back then I would have said “author.” I always say I kind of grew up in a library. There was a nine dollar fee to join the public library in my hometown because we lived outside of the city limits, and I was always just incredibly grateful to my parents for paying that nine dollars every year—at the time, nine dollars seemed like a fortune.
I fought against that desire to be a writer for a long time because it didn’t seem particularly practical. I do have a practical streak, so I rejected the (what seemed to me fanciful) idea of being a writer so completely that I ended up having a career as a surface warfare officer. Outside of the endless memoranda and other bureaucratic productions, that is about as far as you can get from writing.
But I’ve decided to stop fighting the desire and now I write a whole spectrum of things. I do a lot of freelance writing mostly related to technology, which is wonderful because I have a science background from the Naval Academy, so essentially I get paid to put my science background to use and learn stuff. It’s a wonderful career for now because I can build it up while also having a really flexible schedule that allows me to be with my kids a lot while they are young, which is something I wanted to do. The fiction and poetry is more where my heart is, and where I eventually want to focus more of my energy.
Rhodes Project: You’ve written recently about big data. What issues or trends in this field are top-of-mind for you at the moment?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: Big data has become very trendy, but many people do not necessarily understand its implications. My husband is actually a data scientist in pursuit of a PhD in the field, so I am lucky to have an inside scoop. It is going to bring so much change, and it has, I think, interesting applications in the social sciences. Big data provides another way of looking at human behavior. The British approach to anthropology is focused on being as objective as possible by removing your own prejudices and assumptions from the equation. True objectivity is basically impossible when you’re studying your own species, but it’s the goal. But, if you can record all of the decisions that a group of people is making that are recordable and then analyze them through an algorithm, you are about as close to being completely objective as you can get, so data science has possibilities that go well beyond the way it seems to be most used today, which is as a marketing tool.
Rhodes Project: How have your experiences with the United States Navy influenced you?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: It’s what I did for 10 years. Even while I was in Oxford I was still an active duty naval officer. I just left the reserves last year. So the Navy is a big part of me. I grew up listening to my dad tell Navy stories—he had served in the Navy for four years on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. When I left North Dakota at 18, I had no idea what I was getting into. I was tired of small-town life in the Midwest, and just wanted to get away. But I was really shy. I had self-confidence in some things and not in others.
Getting through the Naval Academy and then going into the service afterwards was really where I discovered that I was capable of more than I knew. I was a surface warfare officer, and one of your main responsibilities in that role is to stand watch on the bridge, where the ship is controlled navigationally. I stood that watch when we took my destroyer through the Straight of Malacca, which is one of the world’s busiest choke points. It has a reputation for piracy, and a lot of ships have gotten into a lot of trouble in this little stretch of water. So when you’re charged with helping the captain get a billion dollar warship with 300 people on board through this choke point, once it’s over, you’re not really the same afterwards. You realize that this is something you can do. Ultimately, the Navy was not something I wanted to devote 20 or 30 years to but now, with a little bit of distance from it, I realize it was pretty foundational to who I am.
Rhodes Project: What do you imagine the next ten years of your life will look like? Professionally, are there specific issues you want to focus on? Personally, are there goals you want to achieve?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: The personal is pretty easy: I don’t want to screw up my children too badly. One of my friends told me, you know, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how and how badly. So I’m trying to do a good job raising my kids.
Professionally, I plan to continue writing and reading and being part of the literary community. I feel like that’s the path I’m meant to be on. And I would like to write something that people besides those I’m related to by blood or marriage want to read. Ted Kooser, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate a few years ago, said this in defense of writing poetry: “After all, there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm.” I would take it a step further and add that if you can write something worth reading, something that illuminates some part of the human condition for your readers, then you are doing positive good.
People talk about the end of publishing or the end of printed books. I don’t worry too much about the state of literature—we are storytelling creatures, and always have been, and that won’t end until we are over as a species. Our ways of accessing the stories will change. I am more interested in seeing where things are going and hopefully finding a place there for me.
Rhodes Project: What books have been important to you?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: Most of the books that come to mind are in the realms of fantasy, magical realism, and science fiction. As a child I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind at the Door and A Wrinkle in Time, and those were books that just blew my mind when I was young and opened up whole new worlds of ideas. They’re books that I can’t wait to share with my own children. Similarly, Like Water to Chocolate by Laura Esquivel I read in one sitting, and then reread five more times before returning it to the library.
Other books that have been important to me: Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy—she has written about this sort of beautiful dystopia and what she has achieved in that trilogy I find amazing—and then, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is one of the most astounding novels I have ever read. A lot of serious writers of my generation are coming out of Masters of Fine Arts programs—the terminal creative writing degree—and I go back and forth between wanting to do that and really resisting the idea that I need to be formally taught to write or get a certificate from a degree program to write. That’s just not been true historically, and most of the writers that have inspired me have not come out of that tradition.
Recently, the book that has been very important to me is After Birth by Elisa Albert. It’s a novel about a woman’s life a year after giving birth to her son. When I had my first child, I felt very isolated, despite having a supportive spouse, family that flew in from out of state, in-laws living in the area—basically a ton of help. I still felt alone. Eventually, I discovered that what I needed were women who were at the same stage of motherhood. What I needed were actual flesh and blood friends who lived nearby and who were also dealing with all sorts of similar issues. This book speaks to that need better than a thousand heartfelt blog posts or essays on motherhood. I read it and I felt understood. It was for me a great example of literature that can have a profound impact on at least one person’s experience, and I have to resist shoving a copy into the hands of every pregnant lady I see.
Rhodes Project: What role has mentorship played in your life, personally and professionally? Have role models or mentors given you memorable advice?
Jacquelyn Bengfort: The entire English department at the Naval Academy is full of people who are intellectual heroes to me. When I was a midshipman, the English major wasn’t all that valued by the higher administration at the Naval Academy. The Navy is very technically oriented, and so degrees in the sciences and engineering are preferred. But the English department was a whole group of people who weren’t afraid to say that poetry is important. That literature is an entryway into the human condition. That it is a worthwhile field of study for people who are going to be leading others under very difficult circumstances, sometimes life-and-death circumstances.
Lilia Ramirez has also been an important mentor. She was in one of the first classes of women to graduate from the Naval Academy. She married another naval officer, had a long career as a pilot, and had two children, before retiring and moving into other sectors of government and private sector work. She supported me significantly when I was struggling in my early days, back from Oxford, and not really understanding how I was going to make an impact. She gave great advice on finding your strengths, finding your own leadership style. You don’t have to lead the way you see other people doing it—hearing this was very important because, as it turns out, I almost never worked for a higher ranking woman while I was in the Navy. All my higher-ranking officers and department heads, with one exception who was far above me in the chain of command, were men. And even now, when I’m pursuing a writing career and I’m home with the kids, and I start to worry too much about what the world might think of my choices, her advice has essentially been ‘do you,’ as the cool kids are saying. Be yourself, make your own decisions, and don’t worry about what other people say. Life is long, hopefully, and there is time to have different seasons and pursue different goals at different points. It really helps to hear this from somebody you respect.
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