Eric Watson ’91 wasn’t envisioning himself as a U.S. Marine Corps aviator when he first came to Syracuse University. The Washington D.C., native originally intended on studying computer science, but as is the case with many college students, Watson realized…
Meet Kelsey Dornfeld: Military Storyteller With a Passion for Education
While growing up outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, indications that Kelsey Dornfeld’s future would lead to military service were non-existent. Even though she had a grandfather who fought during World War II, she didn’t have much exposure to the military throughout her childhood, and she says most of her hobbies and interests were what most would consider typical for a young girl. “I grew up in Bloomington and had an average childhood. I was a ‘girly-girl,’” says Dornfeld, who is currently serving as a communications strategy and operations chief in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I did dance, theater, choir and tennis. I wasn’t really interested in the gym and stuff like that.”
In her junior year of high school, she started to look at what her post-graduation options were, and military service became more appealing. She says she wanted to pursue higher education, but the cost was prohibitive. An older sibling went through college the traditional route, and she witnessed their struggle with money throughout those years. She says she didn’t want to experience that struggle herself and started looking at the military as a more viable option. “I knew I wanted to help people, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to pay for college on my own,” says Dornfeld, a military-connected student at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “Out of all the branches, I thought the Marines would give me the best preparation and training.” She is currently in the second semester of the military visual journalism program (MVJ) at Newhouse, a 10-month program that trains mass communications specialists from across the Department of Defense.
Acceptance to the year-long program is notoriously competitive, the service members selected to attend the program are typically some of the top performers in their respective military branches. While it’s a challenging program, it is also considered prestigious due to the invaluable education graduates walk away with after two semesters at Newhouse. “I didn’t think I was that good of a photographer coming here, but after doing more photography shoots, and working with my professors, I’ve definitely become more confident in my skills,” says Dornfeld. She recalls having struggled with imposter syndrome before coming to Syracuse, but last semester she participated in the Alexia Fall Workshop at Newhouse, and the experience of working with the caliber of coaches helped guide her through her photo story, “Finding His Voice.” Dornfeld says the program has been rewarding so far, if for no other reason than to focus on topics or subjects she wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to write about, or photograph, in the military. Some of the photojournalism projects she’s worked on have even been nostalgic, which she says has been personally rewarding. “We’re so indoctrinated with taking photos in the military, and there are specific things the military is looking for in photography that these professors have taught us to look beyond,” says Dornfeld. “The photos here don’t have to be masculine and powerful; they can be softer and show a different side of people.”
In her regular military duties, Dornfeld is part of the small occupational field called Communications Strategy & Operations (COMSTRAT). According to the Marine Corps, it is a communication activity that provides timely, accurate information which informs and educates about the missions, organization, capabilities, needs, activities and performance of the Marine Corps as an instrument of national defense. “The great thing about my job is that you get to see everything, you get to see the bigger picture. The young Marine who is driving a truck only knows to show up at a certain time, drive from point A to point B. They usually don’t know the bigger picture of what’s going on. We’re very lucky in COMSTRAT to know the full picture because of our role,” says Dornfeld.
Even though Dornfeld has enjoyed her success working in communications, she says her long-term career goals are more focused on teaching children rather than photojournalism. “I figured out during my second or third year in the Marine Corps that I found a lot of joy in teaching fellow Marines. It’s rewarding when you see that ‘ah-ha!’ moment in their eyes when they learn something new,” says Dornfeld. “I also love children, and being an elementary school teacher would combine working with kids and teaching them the foundations they’ll use the rest of their lives.”
Dornfel’s time in service has given her plenty of experience to share with future students. She has been stationed on the other side of the world in Okinawa, Japan, and in places you wouldn’t normally find Marines, like Albuquerque, New Mexico.
After graduating from the MVJ program in May, Dornfeld said she’s being sent to work out of the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. She’s primarily looking forward to taking the knowledge she’s gained here and sharing it with the next generation of COMSTRAT Marines who will take her place in the future. “It’s been very eye-opening. Since I was 18, I’ve been told how to act, you know, how Marines act. Coming here, you’re told you can do whatever you want, you can be whoever you want. I’ve been able to rediscover things I loved in high school, and pursue things I’m interested in,” says Dornfeld. “It’s been nice to feel free to be me, and not necessarily who the Marine Corps wants me to be.”