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Virginia Tech students offer recommendations to State Department on how to prevent Middle East conflict

May 8, 2017

Students and faculty standing in back of  table with Virginia Tech signage during  U.S. Department of State Diplomacy Lab Fair.
Students in the Washington Semester in Global Engagement presented their work during the State Department Diplomacy Lab Fair last month. The students and faculty are pictured above at the event.

Virginia Tech offers students seeking to gain real-world experience in the realm of policymaking a unique opportunity to conduct research on international issues and present their findings and policy solutions during a U.S.  Department of State Diplomacy Fair.

This scenario is part of a new program (the pilot has just concluded),  Washington Semester in Global Engagement in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, which takes undergraduates out of the classroom in Blacksburg and into Washington, D.C. 

Offered through the government and international affairs program in the School of Public and Internal Affairs in the National Capital Region, the program includes course work in foreign policy and diplomacy, an internship or externship, and participation in the U.S. Department of State Diplomacy Lab.

Every year the State Department issues a list of research projects, sourced to universities participating in its Diplomacy Lab program, which allows students, under the guidance of their professors, to contribute directly to the policymaking process and present their work to the State Department.

Students enrolled in the Washington Semester worked with Joe Karle, of Arlington, Virginia, and Gabriel “Gabi” Mitchell, of Fairfax, Virginia, doctoral candidates in the planning, governance, and globalization program and the government and international affairs program, respectively, on the issue of “Avoiding a Gaza War: U.S. Strategies for Dealing with the Conflict.”

As the students’ instructors and mentors throughout the semester-long project, Karle and Mitchell knew the importance of harnessing their strengths for the maximum benefit of the students.

“Gabi and I bid on projects that matched our expertise,” Karle said, “and we were lucky enough to get our first choice.”

“Students came in with literally no background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was our job to bring them up to speed quickly so they could feel confident about building their project and presenting it to the State Department and the Palestine-Israel desk,” Mitchell said. “Joe and I enjoyed giving them their freedom to do their own work, and that is what this experience is all about.”

Both Mitchell and Karle were impressed with the students’ willingness to meet the challenge head-on and their ability to handle a project of this scope. “They were highly motivated and embraced the opportunity,” said Mitchell.

The Washington Semester in Global Engagement experience allows students to explore policy issues more deeply and get a firsthand look at how the decision-making process plays out.

These classes go beyond the ordinary classroom experience, said James Kenney, of Sterling, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in political science with a concentration in national security studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “These classes go a mile wide and a mile deep.”

Brandon Boccher, of Chesapeake, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in international studies with a focus in security and foreign policy and minors in Arabic, Middle East studies, and global engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said the opportunity gave him rare access to working with staffers at the State Department — and provided him with invaluable insight.

“When I was working on the presentation for the State Department, I asked for advice from some of the staffers working in the congressman’s office where I was interning. I found out that the legislative director in my office was actually in the Middle East during the last Gaza war. She gave us many tips and tricks on certain aspects of the conflict itself,” Boccher said.

“The Diplomacy Lab program is an opportunity for these students to come to D.C. and talk policy with practitioners in the field and at the State Department,” Karle said. “But it also allows them to get into that mindset themselves of how to address an issue and then communicate possible solutions.”

Ariel Rundbaken, of Cave Creek, Arizona, a sophomore majoring in national security and foreign affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, credited the Diplomacy Lab with opening her eyes to the foreign policy process and the challenges of tackling real-life problems facing the world.

“Presenting a solution to preventing the next Gaza war to the State Department was challenging, but by the end of the semester you learn how foreign policymakers approach real-life situations and that is something that is very beneficial to learn early on within international affairs or political science at a university,” Rundbaken said.

Visit here for more information about the Washington Semester in Global Engagement or contact the program director, Joel Peters, at washsemester@vt.edu. To learn more about Virginia Tech’s Diplomacy Lab program, which is administered through the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, contact the director, Yannis Stivachtis, at ystivach@vt.edu, or the department chair, Karen Hult, at khult@vt.edu.

Written by Mary Price for the School of Public and International Affairs

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