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Undergrad U.S. foreign policy ideas go public

October 10, 2017

Students in Task Force 2017 celebrate their final presentation of research and policy recommendations at UW Club before heading to Task Force Day dinner festivities and keynote address by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Task Force Day, March 10, 2017.

MARCH 22, 2017



What do a U.S. Navy Admiral, American and foreign ambassadors, NGO directors, Indigenous Peoples leaders and a group of University of Washington international studies majors have in common?

On March 10 they collaborated on transforming Jackson School student research on pressing world issues into actionable data.

Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the U.S. Gerald Zackios (center) with Jackson School undergraduate Task Force students

Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the U.S. Gerald Zackios (center) with Jackson School undergraduate Task Force students who presented their research and recommendations on the nuclear testing program fallout in the Marshall Islands. “Ippen Dron” is Marshallese for “All Together.”

Some highlights include:

  • digital story on finding common ground in a world of environmental change that is part of a strategic communications plan the students developed in partnership with the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, aimed at engaging non-tribal millennials
  • Creation of a set of tools – including infographics, petitions, pamphlets, a website and a YouTube video – on the fallout of the U.S. nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands; on March 16, the Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in D.C. sent out a press release about the collaboration, which also included a lobbying event in Olympia among other information-awareness raising activities
  • Posting of “Maritime Security in the Asia-Pacific: A Navigational Map for the New U.S. Administration” on the website of The National Bureau of Asian Research
  • Sharing of the students’ slide deck presentation and data on Syria with the executive board of an international humanitarian organization

It was all part of Task Force Day, the culmination of an undergraduate 10-week capstone course at the Jackson School that requires report-writing and developing findings that are timely and relevant on current global issues to a variety of global organizations.

Task Force 2017 afternoon

Students in the Task Force on “Extremeist Use of Social Media: Balancing Privacy & National Cybersecurity” share a light moment while presenting their findings on Task Force Day, March 10, to Paul Nicholas, Senior Director of Global Security Strategy and Diplomacy, Microsoft.

The students then present their policy recommendations face-to-face to high-profile external experts on their respective research topics.

This year over 140 students participated in the all-day annual Jackson School event, which is held on campus.

“Task Force is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was a big transition from other classes,” said Freeman Halle who served as Task Force Student Coordinator for gaps and goals for reconstruction in Syria, with a focus on Syrian women and children. “You get to work with your peers on something that is a pressing issue in the world today, think ‘outside the box’ and hone your ability to tackle projects in the real world.”

Halle presented policy recommendations alongside 15 other students to six-time Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who also served in Syria in the late 1990s among other crisis areas in the Middle East.

“[Syria] is a subject I know a lot about, both from my time as ambassador to Syria. So the bar was pretty high for those students,” said Ambassador Crocker after listening to his Task Force group of students in a two-hour session and analyzing their recommendations. “Well, they more than made it over. They set up recommendations based on a thorough understanding of what the realities were. It was a textbook example of these Task Forces being not just an interesting exercise for the students but being completely policy relevant.”

Held in winter quarter, nine groups of 15-20 students investigated one of the following topics for Task Force 2017:

  • A New Nuclear Era: The U.S. Role in the Shifting Global Energy Landscape
  • Extremist Use of Social Media: Balancing Privacy & National Cybersecurity
  • Redefining American Leadership for an Internationalized Era
  • Syrian Women and Children” Identifying Gaps and Goals for Reconstruction
  • Finding Common Ground in the Puget Sound Tulalip Tribes, Millennials and the Environment
  • Ippen Dron – All of Us Together: Tools to Address U.S. Nuclear Colonialism in the Republic of the Marshall Islands
  • The Cycle of Violence: Migration from the Northern Triangle
  • Maritime Security isn eh Asia-Pacific: A Navigational Map for the New U.S. Administration
  • Challenges to European Unity: Options for U.S. Policymakers

This year also marked the start of Task Force at the UW Rome Center, in Italy. For 10 weeks, a group of 20 students could gain firsthand insights about the historical, political and cultural issues that will help define the new Europe.

Task Force Rome students and instructors visiting NATO Defense College, Feb. 17, 2017.

Task Force Rome students and instructors visiting NATO Defense College, Feb. 17, 2017.

They met with a range of representatives from the multitude of multilateral global organizations and embassies based in Rome, which informed their research on challenges to European unity.

‘A toolbox of skills you can take out into the world’ 

“I had never led a group of 15 people,” said Halle, who hopes to pursue a career in international law with a focus on migration and human rights. “It teaches you a lot of valuable lessons, like figuring out what people’s skills are and how to maximize their talents.”

For Talia Haller who was the student coordinator on the U.S. role in the global nuclear energy landscape that was evaluated by former CIA director, MIT professor and nuclear expert John M. Deutch, conflict resolution was the biggest skill she learned.

“People might have different ideas, or struggle to meet deadlines, so how do you make it work,” she advised future students of Task Force. “You only have 10 weeks to get things done. Set big deadlines that can accommodate those who need an extra day to complete their work. That is how we managed to stay on track.”

“One of my favorite things about Task Force is that it has helped me grow professionally,” said Brittany Pederson, an undergraduate senior in international studies while on her way to Room 250 in the HUB to join 18 other Jackson School students to present policy recommendations to the Ambassador of the Republic of Marshall Islands to the United States on Task Force Day on March 10.

“My biggest skillset that I have developed [in Task Force] is my leadership style. Going from somebody who was in the military – I am a veteran – where it is very much ‘we make decisions and you just do it’, I like being more of a leader who says this is the structure and this is the outcome we want but let’s be creative in the way we achieve it,” said Pederson.

Task Force instructor Tabitha Mallory (center) and her students

Task Force instructor Tabitha Mallory (center) and her students who researched maritime security in the Asia-Pacific gather at the evening Task Force Dinner at UW Club, March 10.

“I did Task Force as an undergraduate myself, so it has been very meaningful for me to come back and teach it,” said Tabitha Mallory, affiliate instructor at the Jackson School and head of corporate relations and fellow at The National Bureau of Asian Research who also served as the faculty instructor for the Task Force on maritime security in the Asia-Pacific. “This is the kind of stuff they’ll do on the job in the future. They’ll be thrown into a situation and get smart on something really fast, work on a team, organize something, even if not going into government … even in the corporate world they’ll be doing this kind of work.”

Task Force 2017 evaluators at UW Club for Task Force Day

Task Force 2017 evaluators at UW Club for Task Force Day dinner, following a day of evaluating student research and policy recommendations. Missing: U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott, who evaluated the Task Force based in Rome, Italy.

Feedback from U.S. and foreign policy experts
Established almost 35 years ago, Task Force continues to attract policy professionals from the highest levels of government, private and non-profit organizations, to evaluate and challenge the students in their research, recommendations and presentations, and give their advice on careers.

“I was very impressed with the level of research the students were able to put together in a very short period of time on the Nuclear Testing Program,” said Republic of Marshall Islands Ambassador to the U.S. George Zackios.

Task Force evaluators this year featured:

  • Ambassador of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the U.S. Gerald Zackios
  • John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies, The National Bureau of Asian Research and former head of the U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert
  • Ambassador and former Dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M Ryan Crocker
  • El Rescate Executive Director Salvador Sanabria
  • Washington State Tulalip Tribes Public Affairs Manager Francesca Hillery
  • Washington State Representative (ret.) Jim McDermott
  • MIT Professor Emeritus and former Deputy Secretary of Defense and CIA Director John Deutch
  • Paul Nicholas, Senior Director, Global Security Strategy and Diplomacy, Microsoft
  • U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott

U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert

U.S. Navy Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who is also the John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies, shares his view with Task Force students on the importance of the U.S. as a leader in the world.

“There’s a lot to be learned by people in forming up a team – whether an academic assignment, business task or military mission,” said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, former head of the U.S. Navy. “It’s what we call in the military ‘task-organizing’ – who is going to do what, setting a coherent, logical agenda and bringing it to a conclusion. I was impressed by how that came together [for the students].”

His advice to students who want a career in government international affairs: “Even if you ultimately go into business or academia, it is likely you will have to interface with regulatory matters. No matter what you do, understanding how the government functions, I think, can be rewarding to understand”  He also suggested reading “The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur” by Richard Haas, who is president of the Council of Foreign Relations.

For Grace DeBusschere, a international studies major who examined U.S. foreign policy strategy for the 21st century, hearing the political insights from Representative Jim McDermott who evaluated her Task Force was most valuable. “I feel that every student who is trying to pursue a career in public policy of any form should do some sort of exercise that holds the same tenets as Task Force.”

In his keynote speech to over 170 students, faculty and staff at UW Club for the Task Force Day dinner, Ambassador Crocker emphasized that “public service is a noble calling” and reminded the audience that understanding the history of a nation and its peoples is a vital tool for anyone who wants to operate in the international arena. “You have to know what happened the day before yesterday.”

Task Force 2017 program

The Jackson School is one of the few programs in the U.S. to offer an undergraduate Task Force, which is modeled on a simulation of a presidential commission.