Air University Fellows: ‘I can’t imagine not having done this’

  • Published
  • By Billy Blankenship
  • Air University

Maj. Chay Derbigny, an Air Force special operations pilot, wasn’t too excited about the prospect of attending Air Command and Staff College in 2020. He wasn’t looking forward to upending his family from Hurlburt Field, Florida, for the 10-month school at Air University, followed by another move after he graduated. The move didn’t quite fit with his career timeline, and he wasn’t too keen on leaving his family behind, not knowing what life for them would be like at Maxwell Air Force Base.

I’m not going to lie, I didn’t want to come here,” Derbigny said. “Let’s be honest, my job is not an easy one to leave behind to go read a bunch of books.”

Now, nearly two years after he and his family first set foot on the Air University campus, Derbigny says his attitude about being here has done a complete about-face.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong about everything,” he said. “No one talks about the great options here. My kid is actually in a better school than the great one he was in while we were in Florida. Yes, school was hard for me, but it might have been the best part of my military career so far, especially considering my fellowship year.”

His change of heart, he said, is a result of his selection as an Air University fellow.

The Air University fellows program allows high-performing officers to serve as faculty members before or after completing in-resident ACSC. The program increases the overall quality of Air University faculty while giving select officers enhanced developmental opportunities.

Officers can elect one of three fellows options. Option A is a year as a faculty member at
Squadron Officer School, followed by ACSC. For Option B, the fellow spends a year as an ACSC student then a year as ACSC faculty. In Option C, the officer’s first year is as an ACSC student, followed by a year on faculty at Officer Training School.

Derbigny came to Air University as an Option B fellow. He is well into his second year at Air University, having graduated ACSC in 2021 and now is a faculty member in the college’s department of leadership.

The transition from cockpit to student to teaching was not easy for him, he said, but it has been rewarding.

“I did do a master’s degree online, but that was 2012,” Derbigny said. “Fast forward to 2020 when I came here, it had been a while, and it took me a bit to figure out how to write on that level again. That’s one of the things I love about my fellowship year. What I’m getting out of it now, especially after being a student for a year, is that it’s given me time to reflect on what I’ve learned. Not only that, but analyze what everybody else has learned.”

Reasons vary for officers applying for the AU fellows program. Some are academic, getting to lead a class in an area of study that interests them, while others may have personal or professional reasons for wanting to stay an extra year at Air University.

“It has been a breath of fresh air,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Hughes, a security forces officer and an AU Fellow B in ACSC’s leadership department. “Being in squadron command, your schedule very quickly gets away from you, and you have to deal with those leadership tasks that come along with those positions. Here, you get to focus on your job at becoming a better instructor and growing as a leader. Any off-duty time includes much more flexibility to spend that time on things you want to spend time on.”

Hughes did have some uncertainty about what effect being away from his field for so long would have on his career path. Furthermore, already having spent several years as a squadron commander, he questioned the benefit of attending a school designed to prepare him for leadership positions, something he’d been doing for a while.

“I was kind of cynical a little bit,” said Hughes, an Alabama native. “I pretty quickly let go of that once I embraced the process and started refocusing my attention on what I can improve. Regardless of how good things are, they can always get better. For me, this year has been an opportunity for me to get better and hone my leadership skills a little bit before I get back in the field and command again. This time though, I’ll do so with a different perspective.”

Along with the extended stay on station, AU fellows get to choose what area of study they’d like to concentrate on as instructors.

“We all have to put together our own professional development plans, and for the first time I get to determine what I’m going to focus on,” Hughes said. “Being able to focus so much on leadership studies will be very applicable when I go back to command again. I’ve been able to not only instruct leadership material, but also focus on my own personal growth as a leader and pick out golden nuggets throughout the year that are going to help me when I go on to my next position.”

For one officer, a position at Air University as a fellow is exactly what she, and her husband, was looking for.

“I actually worked at the
Air Force Personnel Center in 2017 as the (AU fellows) program was coming out of its first couple of years,” said Maj. Laura Evans, who, along with her husband Maj. Eric Evans, is serving as a Fellow B.

“The feedback I received then was great. Not only did you not have to move 10 months after you got here, but also you then get to experience the classroom in a totally different way as an instructor. I used to get the phone calls at AFPC asking how they could stay at Air University, but it would be too late for them to apply for the fellowship path. When it was time for us, we knew we wanted to apply.”

There is no guarantee dual-military couples would be selected for the same student year, she cautioned. However, the fellows program provides families the possibility of staying together for two years given the various fellows options.

“It’s not such a churn-and-burn with the two-year stay,” she said. “We saw our fellow students stressing toward the end of the academic year trying to get re-packed again a few months after getting here, and it was really nice not having to go through that.”

Derbigny admits that he is not a natural-born instructor, let alone student, but the culture on the AU campus helped in his transition, and the experience helped him grow in unexpected ways that will benefit him and the Air Force beyond his tenure at ACSC.

“I recognize that higher education, reading and writing may have been one of my weaknesses prior to being an AU Fellow. I’m now proud to say that though it may still not be one of my greatest strengths, it’s no longer a weakness,” he said. “This whole experience has been so great, and my family really enjoys being here, so I want to continue to challenge myself and grow in ways I didn’t even recognize before coming to ACSC. I am a better husband, father, officer and teammate because of this experience, and that’s crazy because I never even wanted to come here to begin with. Now, I can’t imagine not having done this.”

For more information on the Air University Fellows program, email the AU Fellows Program manager or email the AFPC Officer Workforce Development Office.