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W&M team aces EU foreign policy competition

  • A winning trio
    A winning trio  The W&M team that won the Schuman Challenge (L to R): Joseph Bistransky '19, Grace Kier '20 and George Barros '19.  Courtesy Stephen E. Hanson
  • Schuman Challenge mentors
    Schuman Challenge mentors  Steve Hanson, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Reves Center for International Studies (far right) was joined by Associate Professor of Government Paula Pickering and Mike Tierney, Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations, in helping the W&M team prep for the competition.  Kate Hoving, Reves Center for International Studies
  • Working late
    Working late  The Schuman Challenge team went through an extensive process preparing for the competition, and it paid off with victory over 16 other universities.  Kate Hoving, Reves Center for International Studies
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A team of William & Mary students recently won the Schuman Challenge, a foreign policy contest for undergraduates hosted by the Delegation of the European Union to the United States. This year’s topic was “Supplementing the Minsk agreements: Taking additional steps in support of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”

The 2019 challenge took place in Washington, D.C. Feb. 14-15. Grace Kier ’20, Joseph Bistransky ’19 and George Barros ’19 — all global studies majors focusing on Russian and post-Soviet studies — formed the winning team. According to the delegation’s website, the teams were judged “based on the merits of their contributions to furthering transatlantic dialogue,” with the judges looking for evidence-based analysis, subject matter knowledge and clear and powerful presentations.

“It feels amazing to have won,” said Barros, who is also majoring in international relations. “A full three days after our triumph, we are all still exuberant.”

Steve Hanson, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Reves Center for International Studies, served as the primary mentor for the team. Several other faculty members volunteered to provide feedback and advice, including Chancellor Professor of Government Clay Clemens, Associate Professor of Government Paula Pickering, and Mike Tierney, Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations.

“The winning performance of our Schuman Challenge team demonstrated clearly what makes a William & Mary education in global affairs so special,” Hanson said.  “Reflecting their in-depth training in Russian and East European studies as well as their capacity for incisive analysis of international issues, Grace, Joseph and George showed true mastery of the complexities of the situation in contemporary Ukraine, generating policy recommendations that were both concrete and realistic.”

Seventeen teams from institutions around the country participated, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, George Washington University, Tufts University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.

Teams of two-to-three students from each school developed and presented over the course of two rounds proposed policies to further transatlantic cooperation in Ukraine. The two top-ranked teams then competed in a championship round.

The topic was especially intriguing for Barros who wants to become an expert on Eastern Europe and Eurasia, concentrating on Ukraine, so that he can “help advance liberal democracy, human rights and the rule of law in this critical world region,” he said.

Kier recalled that the first step was intense study of the issues and then collaboration and practice.

“We prepared for the competition by researching as much as we could about the subject matter,” she said. “We then discussed all of our possible policy proposals with each other and several faculty members. Finally, we wrote our proposal and had several practice run-throughs with faculty and peers.”

Bistransky explained more of the process: “We started out with a framing document to include all of our arguments, as if we were writing a paper, then refined that into an outline, then a script. By the end we had a very refined base product, plus all the knowledge we needed to answer possible questions.”

According to Barros, the W&M team’s policy proposals were focused on three areas: increasing the ability of the transatlantic partnership to maintain sanctions over time and target areas where Russian concessions are most probable; deepening transatlantic cooperation on information and cyber warfare issues; and enacting civil society and anti-corruption reform policies to strengthen accountability and conditionality.

“Each of these three areas are broad policy areas that are relatively broad, so each section has detailed and specific policy recommendations,” he said.

Bistransky concurred. "Our basic premise was that there was no short-term solution to the issue, so we proposed a series of precisely targeted initiatives to put maximum pressure on both Russia and Ukraine while minimizing costs to the West.”

The judges for the final round were David O'Sullivan, EU ambassador to the U.S.; Karin Olofsdotter, Swedish ambassador to the U.S.; Julie Fisher, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Europe and the EU;  Ishaan Tharoor, foreign affairs writer for The Washington Post; and Patrick Tucker, technology editor of Defense One.

“It felt like sitting in a pressure cooker when we waited for Ambassador O'Sullivan to announce the winner,” said Barros. “Winning was easily one of the greatest moments of my life. I was especially pleasantly surprised when EU Delegation staff said that some of our proposals could become actual foreign policy. It feels deeply rewarding knowing that the results of this academic challenge may actually help address the critical issue that is Russian aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine.”