Counterterrorism Expert Becomes Head of School at Baldwin

Even before “al-Qaida” and “ISIS” were household names, in 1996 as a high school student, Marisa Porges — who grew up in Penn Valley and was a member of Har Zion Temple — had a sense that national security was important to her.

Marisa Porges, who will soon be installed as the Head of School at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, graduated from Baldwin in 1996. Back then, the world was a different place, especially when it came to the subject that would define her career in international relations: terrorism.
In 1996, the majority of international terrorist attacks were attributable to three ongoing struggles: the Sri Lankan civil war, the Troubles in Ireland and the first Chechen war. There also was a devastating series of suicide bombings in Israel and a Saudi Hezbollah truck bombing that targeted American GIs. Here at home, on July 27, anti-abortion activist Eric Rudolph set off a bomb at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
1996 was before “al-Qaida” and “ISIS” were household names. It was before Sept. 11, 2001, and before the so-called War on Terror, which is when many Americans really tuned into the issue for the first time.
But even in 1996, and before that, as a high school student, Marisa Porges — who grew up in Penn Valley and was a member of Har Zion Temple — had a sense that national security was important to her.
“I was interested in science and space, and national service, and the two really combined in military aviation, so I decided towards the end of high school that I wanted to fly for the military,” she said. No one from her graduating class at Baldwin was joining the military, going to a military academy or doing ROTC, nor had any of the graduates in recent memory. “I credit my father for even mentioning it because he knew I was interested in flying and had a penchant for service. It did seem a little bit out of left field at the time.”
Porges participated in ROTC at Harvard University, where she majored in geophysics, an “applied physics with regard to orthoplanetary science,” she explained. It tied into her interest in military aviation and aeronautics.
After Harvard, Porges had a summer internship that exposed her to policy-making at the Pentagon.
“I realized that though I still loved — and still do love — the sciences and math,” she said, “where I wanted to have impact was in this new area.”
She headed to graduate school at the London School of Economics and Political Science to study government and comparative politics. The curriculum, she said, was a sort of test to make sure this field was the right choice. It was.
“It just felt right,” she said. “The issues and the people and the stuff we were working on — the impact I could have — was why I started pursuing it for the next stage of my career.”
After graduating with a master’s degree, she came back to the U.S. to begin her military service as an electronic countermeasures officer — a naval flight officer — aboard an EA-6B Prowler, a twin-engine electronic warfare aircraft.
In the years after her service, she continued to serve her country as a foreign policy and counterterrorism advisor in the departments of Treasury and Defense. She got a Ph.D. from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, with a focus on security studies and counterterrorism.
She also traveled widely throughout the Middle East, speaking to people whose lives were impacted by American foreign policy and by counterterrorism initiatives. She interviewed former members of al-Qaida, members of the Taliban and rebel fighters in Syria, all of which informed her research and her multiple fellowships with various policy-centered organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations.
Most recently, Porges was a White House fellow for the National Economic Council, acting as senior policy advisor on cybersecurity and technology policy, and initiatives to grow entrepreneurship nationwide. And now she’ll be returning to her native stomping grounds for a job that, to some, might seem somewhat parochial compared to the rest of her career. Porges doesn’t see it that way at all.
“I actually think I’ll be able to have more impact, more national and global impact, through helping shape the next generation of Baldwin girls than I was fortunate to have even at the White House or at other positions I’ve had in Washington, D.C., or overseas,” she said. “The work we’re doing [at Baldwin] will help to shape the next set of women who will be national leaders and global leaders, to shape how they view the world and what their values and priorities are.”
It is these girls, she notes, who will be on the vanguard of helping the world community to “tackle the really serious challenges that inevitably will come up for the next generation.”
She’s also personally excited about this next chapter.
“It’s great to be back as a member of this community,” she said. “It feels like coming home again. This new role will allow me to get reacquainted with the Baldwin community, the Main Line community, the Jewish community and the broader Philadelphia-area community. It’s just thrilling.”
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