“I felt like an outsider my entire life, and it’s the people who were accepting who made the difference for me.”
As a child, Jesse Humpal ’15 MA, ’20 MA, ’21 PhD drifted in and out of special education classes. He almost failed out of his undergraduate program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and at Northwestern he almost threw in the towel on higher education entirely during a course on linear regression.
But Humpal persevered, and after defending his dissertation on April 30, he tweeted:
To Humpal’s shock, the replies and retweets poured in, as people not only congratulated Humpal but shared their own triumphs. The tweet eventually ended up with more than 4,600 retweets, 145,000 likes and thousands of comments.
“I only had 100 followers or so. I knew 90% of them, and so I thought I was just telling them,” Humpal says. “That night, a lot of people started retweeting it, and before I knew it, I had a lot of people reaching out to me — both that I knew from when I was a child and then mostly strangers. That was this amazing experience.”
Growing up in Lincoln, Neb., Humpal describes his family as “working class, working poor.”
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” he says. “Both my parents graduated from high school with no college.” His father struggled with alcohol and drug abuse when Humpal was in middle school, spending weeks in a coma and eventually succumbing to his addiction just before Humpal started 10th grade.
“Things got a little weird at home,” Humpal says of the days after his father’s death. “Everybody kind of just distanced themselves and did their own thing.”
Humpal joined the Army National Guard in 2003 and finished boot camp before his junior year of high school. To pay for his undergraduate degree, he secured a scholarship to work as Lil’ Red — one the University of Nebraska's mascots — on the sidelines of football and basketball games.
“While I was an undergrad, I didn’t know what good schools were,” Humpal says. “But for some reason — and this is not a suck-up thing — I was like, ‘Northwestern is the smart-person school, and I really want to go there one day.’”
After graduation, Humpal joined the Air Force, serving tours in Qatar and the Pacific. While overseas, Humpal was accepted to the School of Continuing Studies (now the School of Professional Studies), earning a master’s degree in public policy and administration in 2015. (Humpal earned a second master’s degree in political science in 2020.)
“The rigor of the School of Continuing Studies for me kind of turned a corner, and I relied on Northwestern’s Writing Place,” says Humpal, who became a special operations pilot during his first master’s program. “For every one of my papers in my entire master’s degree, I read it over with a Northwestern undergrad. They were so helpful. I sought out opportunities to publish in different places. I started writing a lot and I got a mentor in the Air Force.”
In 2018 Humpal was granted three years to earn his political science PhD at Northwestern, studying how insurgent groups develop and proliferate.
Humpal identified what he calls counter-systemic insurgent organizations — “groups whose goals are to destroy the international system” — and showed that these groups’ survival changes over time.
“I looked at insurgent organizations from 1945 to the present,” Humpal says. “I discovered that 37 counter-systemic insurgent groups formed since 2001. Of those, only one has been defeated. These groups are no longer dying as they once were. The fact that they are still forming at the same rate is very concerning.”
Humpal prepared to defend his dissertation by watching his colleagues defend their own (pre-pandemic, these events were open to the public). He asked friends to help him tighten his arguments and make sure his quantitative sections were airtight.
“I never, ever thought I would be able to do this,” Humpal says of his dissertation defense. “And I had a lot of people that encouraged me and helped me along the way.”
One of those people is political science chair and professor William Reno, who Humpal says was “absolutely formative” in his success, reading and editing every paper and dissertation chapter Humpal wrote over three years. Humpal and Reno collaborated on research that has since been cited in a congressional report and shared with staff at the U.S. Pentagon.
“Jesse demonstrated a work ethic based on confidence, resilience and professional bearing,” Reno says. “It meant keeping a positive approach to his work and toward everyone around him in the middle of a pandemic. He wrote an outstanding dissertation in a tough situation. [Jesse is] the sort of person I’d want as an officer in the U.S. military: an adaptive and dynamic leader in whatever he does.”
“I cannot understate how important Will is to my success,” Humpal says. “He puts his neck out for people who do not fit the mold of a graduate student. Will is willing to give people a shot.”
In June, Humpal will go to Fort Bragg Joint Special Operations Command in North Carolina, where he will develop training and strategy for special operations forces. And in the fall of 2022 Humpal will face a new challenge as an assistant professor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He plans to pay it forward, effective immediately: