Growing up in Ithaca, New York, Phoebe M. Kotlikoff ’24 had somehow never heard of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which isn’t far from her hometown, let alone the U.S. Naval Academy. So, she couldn’t have imagined that just a few years later she would help make history as one of the first women to serve on a U.S. Navy submarine.

“It was the best, most incredible opportunity for a 24-year-old,” says Kotlikoff, a qualified nuclear engineer who served as a submarine officer after graduating from the Naval Academy in 2013. As a submarine tactics instructor, she supervised tactical evaluation and training of 12 submarine crews; as a division officer, she served in numerous roles including as the Damage Control Assistant, where she was responsible for all systems and equipment that support human life on the submarine.

When she first reported to sea duty aboard the U.S.S. Ohio, Kotlikoff was one of three women on a crew of 150 service members. “I was the first female officer that a lot of these sailors had ever encountered during their careers in the Navy,” she says. “I loved being able to show that I was a capable and excellent submariner, that I was tactically and technically good, and that I was a good leader.”

Kotlikoff deployed twice, into the Western Pacific theater, where she spent about three months at sea — mostly under it — before returning to port. “A submarine is a very tight environment, but people have a misconception of the scale,” she says, noting that most Navy submarines are the length of a football field. “It’s not spacious but I think you get used to it. I slept really well when [the sub] was underway.”

“I loved being able to show that I was a capable and excellent submariner, that I was tactically and technically good, and that I was a good leader.”

Kotlikoff, who next year will clerk at the New York Court of Appeals, is drawn to challenging herself in new situations. When a friend in high school suggested she consider a service academy — she had no idea what that was — her parents drove her to Annapolis, Maryland, to visit the Naval Academy.

“It was jarringly different from anywhere I’d been,” she says, yet she realized she would thrive. “I saw people my age, my peers, in uniform, independent and on their own, and financially independent as well. I felt I was ready to make my own way.”

She especially loved the regimentation and discipline. And she started playing rugby, which she did for all four years.

As much as she liked the academy, she allows that it “was a huge adjustment socially and culturally.” The student body was about 20 percent women at the time and more politically diverse than the liberal college city of Ithaca. “I was forced to grapple with my own views,” she recalls. “It was incredibly hard, but I came out the other end much more sure of who I am.”

Two dramatic changes that took place in the military while she was a student shaped her future, including influencing her to become a lawyer. First, in 2011, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which prohibited openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from serving, was repealed. Second, the Navy decided to integrate submarine service with women.

“When submarines were opened to women, it was a kind of a no-brainer” in terms of selecting her military specialty, Kotlikoff says. “I loved the idea of helping to integrate this community with women for the first time … I loved the opportunity to serve in that way to try and drive this cultural change.”

After graduating 11th in a class of 1,080 with a degree in quantitative economics, Kotlikoff earned an M.P.P. in international and global affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School before starting active duty as a submariner based in Washington State. Her then-boyfriend, Will Harris, whom she met as a fellow student in the academy, was also stationed there as a submarine officer. The couple married in Washington. As their military commitment was ending, Harris was focused on medical school. He is now a third-year student at Harvard Medical School.

Kotlikoff, influenced by the legal underpinnings of the integration of submarine service and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” decided on law school. “I started to feel that the people I saw as real change agents were predominantly lawyers,” she explains. The couple’s educations are paid for by the G.I. Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, by which Harvard supplements the federal educational benefits for veterans.

Kotlikoff, who has served as a military reservist throughout law school, was president this year of the Harvard Law Armed Forces Association. And in her second year, she was vice-president of the Women’s Law Association. “I have loved all my classes and love the feeling that I really have command of a skill set,” she says. “It reminds me a lot of being technically proficient in the Navy. I feel like law is something I can really sink teeth into and understand.”

But it was another new experience that marked the highpoint of her Harvard Law School years, she says: she became a parent. Last fall, when she was 39 weeks pregnant, Kotlikoff was invited to speak to first year students during orientation. Among other things, she advised them, “The respect of classmates, earned through the way you conduct yourself in and out of class, has proved far more important to me than grades, accolades, etc.,” she recalls. 

Two days later, her son Henry was born.

Next year, while she clerks for New York’s highest court, the family will live in New York City, but Kotlikoff wants to end up back home in upstate or central New York. Her exact plans aren’t settled but she is drawn to government service at the local, state, or federal level. Since her first year as a law student, she has ardently advocated for more focus at the school on state and local government, including more classes and invited speakers.

“I think I’ve become a totally different person during the three years of law school,” most notably due to the birth of her son but also through interactions with classmates who often had wildly divergent viewpoints from hers. “I am so thankful for that,” she says.

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