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Intel enigma wins top award from military foundation

Monday, May 22, 2017


How did a rancher’s daughter from the Midwest, who hunts, rides horses, and works cattle, find her way to Mercyhurst University? Like so many before her, Hannah Mayes, 21, wanted a career in intelligence and, when she went looking for the best place, all roads led to Mercyhurst.

“I came here strictly for intel,” said Hannah, who will graduate in the fall with her baccalaureate degree, but not before having distinguished herself with a 4.0 GPA and, mostly recently, besting all national competitors to emerge as the National Military Intelligence Foundation’s (NMIF) top student award recipient for 2017.

Hannah’s life story is an eclectic mix of interests. There’s no pigeonholing this senior, and she laughs outwardly when people try.

She was homeschooled until ninth grade, during which time she traveled back and forth between her city residence in Minnesota and her family’s ranch in Nebraska. A self-professed tomboy, she would herd cattle, feed cows, repair windmills and install fencing; then she’d go out and play football with the guys in her neighborhood group.

To relax, she’d go fly fishing with her dad, or horseback riding, or read books; westerns mostly, and stories of war. She remembers interviewing her grandpa, a Korean War veteran, about his experiences, and created her own history of war book. She’s fascinated with languages, mastering sign language and minoring in Arabic.

One year, during a particularly poignant Memorial Day service, she heard bagpipes for the first time and was mesmerized. Knowing she couldn’t afford lessons, let alone a set of bagpipes, she did some research and discovered that the Minnesota Police Pipe Band offered free lessons. That was the start of a long and rewarding kinship with piping that has included competitions across the Midwest, private lessons from a bona fide Scotsman and mowing lawns to buy her own bagpipes. Eventually, she joined the Twin Cities Piping Club to extend her repertoire and gain more experience.

Undaunted by blazing new trails, Hannah is the only female on Mercyhurst’s rugby club team, and she is its vice president. Last year, she had the company of several female players, all of whom graduated earlier this month. She is trying to recruit more women to the club, but this fall she will be playing on the Gannon University women’s club team for some much sought-after playing time.

Despite her busy schedule, Hannah finds time to volunteer weekly as an after-school youth program tutor at the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation.

So, again, how does someone with piping, signing, ranching, fly fishing, tutoring and rugby in her portfolio – passions that could have led to any number of different careers – end up as an intelligence analyst hunkered down in a computer lab for hours on end?

“Through everything, no matter what my interest, I always had a strong desire to serve my country and to do something that made a difference,” she said. “I am interested in national security and counterterrorism, so I thought of going into the military, the Air Force actually, but that didn’t give me a lot of flexibility. I thought of criminal justice, but then I learned about intelligence studies and thought that would give me a bit of everything I enjoy: problem solving, politics, military, history and global issues.”

This summer, Hannah is putting her intelligence analysis skills to work as an intern at the state fusion center in Madison, Wisconsin. Created under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after 9/11, state and national fusion centers gather and share threat-related information. Ultimately, she hopes for a career in national security.

Before making her way to Wisconsin, though, Hannah visited McLean, Virginia, on May 21 to accept her award from the NMIF, a $3,000 scholarship given in honor of LTG James A. Williams, USA (Ret), former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"This young lady was as well-rounded as they get - imagine, from rugby to bagpipes - and she was quite poised," said Colonel Michael M. Ferguson, U.S. Army, Retired, Director of Scholarships for the NMIF. "I must say that we have been consistently impressed with Mercyhurst University students. In the past two years, we have had five apply: two won scholarships and there were two honorable mentions." Last year, Kaley Morrison won a second-place award of $2,000, and both this year and last, Erin Manth took home an honorable mention.

In speaking to her college experience, Hannah said Mercyhurst has broadened her horizons in magnificent ways. As an intelligence studies major, she has enjoyed many challenging opportunities for hands-on learning and particularly appreciates the lessons learned as a research assistant for retiring department chair Dave Grabelski.