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Winter seminar brings new lens to foreign policy education

  • Experiencing D.C.
    Experiencing D.C.  W&M students attend a debriefing in the Butler Room on the first floor of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. They were participating in the 2019 William & Mary D.C. Winter Seminar.  Photo by Shrilly Lu
  • An alumni helping hand
    An alumni helping hand  Nuhami Alemu '21 gets feedback on her policy memo assignment from Chris D'Alessio '12 at the Alumni Networking Brunch, part of the 2019 William & Mary D.C. Winter Seminar in January.  Photo by Alexander Nocks
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Sitting in a classroom in Williamsburg learning about political policy and theory is a certain type of education. Being in Washington, D.C., and seeing the real-world application of those theories is something altogether different.

Add in visiting government sites during the longest government shutdown in history, and the 21 students who participated in the 2019 William & Mary D.C. Winter Seminar Jan. 2-10 at the W&M Washington Center had an experience they would never forget.

During the course, titled Foreign Policy: International Development and Security, students met with government officials, journalists, think-tank analysts, diplomats and real-world policy makers to learn how theories about policy are reflected in practice.

Led by Mike Tierney, the George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the university, and Samantha Custer, director for policy analysis at AidData, a research lab at W&M’s Global Research Institute, these students learned from experts and honed skills like writing memos, developing arguments, presenting policy recommendations, networking and working with small groups under tight deadlines. Students and professors alike spoke highly of the skills students were able to improve on during their time in D.C.

Students had a variety of reasons for taking the course, none more personal than William Gage ’20.

“I took the course to answer the question, ‘How does the government decide to send my father off to war?’” he said. “When I was a young kid, my dad was a Navy fighter pilot, so I wanted to explore that process, the decision-making process in the Department of Defense and up through the White House. So, I wanted to learn more about that process generally and then specifically to answer that question.

“I think I managed to answer that question and get a really great, broad view of how policy-making happens in Washington, which is incredible. I really enjoyed the conversations that we had at the DOD with Director (Theresa) Whelan, answered a lot of really great questions. I think getting a lot of insight from actual practitioners was incredibly valuable, the work they do, principally, and how they go about doing the work was really cool to get a birds-eye-view of how that works.”

Students also noted that they were able to improve their networking skills.

Sarah Bomfim ’20 observed, “We had both a networking brunch and dinner, which was really valuable because we were able to get firsthand knowledge about the different career fields that are possible for international relations.

“I was super interested in foreign policy and specifically the security part of the course. It was cool to see how development and security connected with each other in the policy world. … I gained analytical and networking skills, because we were always meeting different W&M alumni who were coming to speak.” 

Traveling to Washington during a government shutdown made for unique experiences. Custer believes that the shutdown in and of itself was an educational experience that is not traditionally thought of in the study of policy making.

“One of the things we wanted to teach students is the unpredictability of policy, and there’s probably no better time to do that then when there’s a government shutdown, and you’re hearing firsthand from people about how this affects people’s lives, incentives and daily pace,” she said. “This is not something that appears in books, and yet that’s a real factor that people have to contend with.”

Tierney added that the shutdown brought different learning opportunities.

“The rules of the shutdown said that employees of the State Department weren't allowed to work with outside groups, that it was essential meetings only,” he said. “But we were very lucky, because I was able to call former Acting Secretary of State Tom Shannon, a William & Mary alum, to visit the class on short notice, and the two hours he spent with the students were a geopolitical tour-de-force.

“Although there was a government shutdown, certain parts of the government don’t close, so it’s really nice that we have William & Mary alumni working right there in the White House, on the National Security Council. They were able to take some time to talk to William & Mary students about what the interagency process is like, and what it’s like to brief the president or vice president of the United States.”

Students heard from and worked with many experts in their fields: White House employees, World Bank executives, think tank analysts, Department of Defense directors and countless more.

One visit stood out for Nuhami Alemu ’21.

“We got to visit the World Bank,” he said. “We met with an executive director from Denmark, and she told us about her role as a representative from Denmark, as well as (being) an agent of the World Bank. It was really cool because I saw that it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Brook Miller ’20 was impressed by three site visits, but especially the one with Jen   Psaki ’00, former White House communications director in the Obama administration.

“She was also an English major (at W&M), and when I was reading her bio, I wanted to do everything she has done,” Miller said. “She was super down to earth, very helpful in giving advice and a great person to talk to.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the course was the valuable and inspiring experiences students gathered, as they highlighted how beneficial the unique opportunities in D.C. were to their learning and career goals. 

“I would definitely recommend this to other students because I think it’s a really valuable class you can take at the William & Mary campus in D.C. with everything they have to offer,” Bomfim said.

Gage added: “When it comes to studying in D.C. you’re not just getting a few credits, but also a really valuable experience. If you’re interested in working in the international development or policy-making worlds, you could not go wrong.”

Miller summarized the experience as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“It was a great way to reach out, meet other like-minded individuals and learn from them,” she said, “and create a great bonding experience and intellectual space as well.”