Being in a position to lead and affect change, rather than caring about ranks and titles, is a guiding principle for Tia McKinnie, an active-duty Captain in the U.S. Army. McKinnie is currently enrolled in the Defense Comptrollership Program (DCP), a prestigious and intensive 14-month program of study specifically for career-level financial managers in the Department of Defense (DoD). Upon graduating this summer, McKinnie will cross the stage with an M.B.A. and Executive M.P.A. from Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
Earning two graduate degrees in 14 months is no easy task, and her previous experiences have prepared her for DCP. She is a first-generation college student from Georgia, and when she was growing up outside of Conyers, college costs were always a concern. While working at a hair salon in high school, a client told her about obtaining a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to help pay for college. She took the client’s advice and applied to the ROTC program at Mercer University in Georgia. She became a cadet after she learned about ROTC’s benefits and the opportunity to get a college education without the burden of crushing debt.
Her inspiration to serve in the military was about more than just paying for college though, Mckinnie says her family has a strong tradition of military service, so the opportunity to serve and gain an education were strong influences on her decision.
“My dad served in the Army and in the Navy, and my uncles served in the Army and in the Marine Corps,” McKinnie says. “The call to serve skipped over my two brothers and many cousins and landed with me–the youngest and a woman.”
After graduating from Mercer University, McKinnie commissioned in the U.S. Army Reserve to stay close to her home and family. She worked in a car dealership’s finance department when she wasn’t at weekend drilling or annual training with her Reserve unit, but as she moved up in the ranks her military positions increasingly demanded more of her time and attention.
“I was a staff officer, so my responsibilities to my unit were more than just coming to weekend drills once a month,” McKinnie said. “I enjoyed it though. My Command Sergeant Major at the time realized that she knew most of my family after attending my grandmother’s funeral. As fate would have it, her relationship with my family played a role in me taking her advice and encouragement to switch to Active duty. She told me it was pretty clear what path I was on.”
A key difference between being active duty and being in the Reserve is the likelihood of being stationed away from home and the time commitment. After making the switch in 2017, McKinnie soon found herself preparing for her first deployment to Kuwait, and prior to coming to Syracuse in 2022 she was stationed in Germany. While in the Reserve, McKinnie spent some time in South Korea with an engineering unit, but she says there are some obvious differences between active duty and the Reserve.
“A positive side of being in the Reserve is that you get experience in the civilian sector as well as the military. Reservists are essentially dual-headed, up-trained, and more agile because they work in both environments. If you’re active duty, on the other hand, the way the military operates in regards to cost savings and budget execution does not translate well to the civilian world,” McKinnie said.
Understanding how the government handles accounting and how the corporate world handles accounting is a critical part of the Defense Comptrollership Program. McKinnie had previously attended the one-month Army Comptrollership Course at Whitman in 2019. She was excited to return to the campus when she learned she was accepted into the DCP program.
“When I attended the Army Comptrollership Course, I fell in love with SU. It reminded me a lot of Mercer with the architecture, and I really like the Whitman Building because of the modern technologies. Having that experience here already made me more interested in coming back for DCP,” Mckinnie said.
Like the Defense Comptrollership Course, the ACC teaches U.S. Army soldiers the basics of finance and budget at the unit level. It is considered an entry-level course for officers like McKinnie when they’re just starting their military career, making a stark difference from the more strategic- and career-level training the DCP students receive.
“I feel like DCP is much broader and more strategic. For example, I have public administration classes that focus on managerial leadership and U.S. defense strategy. I just finished a class with Professor Sean O’Keefe and I’m currently taking a class with Professor Robert Murrett—both have incredible experiences and resumes,” McKinnie said. “Getting insights from career public servants like them has been incredibly valuable.”
Upon graduating this summer, McKinnie will leave behind Central New York’s lovely winters for her next duty station: Hawaii. While she ultimately has her sights set on a future assignment at the Pentagon, as several DCP graduates have done, McKinnie says she is also interested in other joint assignments, particularly in the Intelligence Community, after some of the classes she’s taken during her time at SU.
McKinnie is excited to report to Fort Shafter near Honolulu with her fiancé, a U.S Army veteran himself, and the two plan to get married in Hawaii having delayed their wedding due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “140 days and a wake-up,” she said, “But until then, I’m committed to studying hard and finishing strong.”