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Around the world with Task Force

June 11, 2024

During the last week of spring quarter classes on May 29 and May 30, around a table in Simpson Center Room 202 at the University of Washington, 10 Jackson School juniors and seniors laid out their analysis on the rise of far-right political entities in Europe while another group of nine shared their views on what the U.S.-Japan alliance means today for both those countries and in the Asia region.

But this wasn’t the usual final presentation for a class.

The two students groups, in business attire, were presenting their research and recommendations over two hours to the likes of Bettina Martin, Minister of Science, Culture, Federal and European Affairs, of the State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, who attended in person, and Sherry L. Martin, Asia Division Chief in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Opinion Research, who was available via Zoom.

It was all part of the annual Evaluation Day for the Donald C. Hellmann Task Force Program, where student-led global policymaking research and ideas for solutions are being heard, questioned and analyzed by high-level foreign policy experts, ranging from government officials to ambassadors to NGO leaders and think tank researchers.

Held twice a year over a single quarter, this spring the capstone cohort of 21 students were tackling the topics of “Countering the Illiberal Drift In Europe: Assessing Regional Politics and Citizen Action Partners” with instructor Sabine Lang, Professor and Chair of the Center for West European Studies, and “U.S.- Japan Alliance in the World,” with instructor Saadia Pekkanen, Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Professor and Japan expert.

The external evaluators dive deep into the students’ work, commenting on their written reports and oral presentations for structure, clarity and content, as well as testing their knowledge on the topics. They also share their career pathways and experience in their fields and the realities of decision-making in the world of foreign policy.

Collaborating to reach a common goal
“My favorite Task Force experience was Evaluation Day,” said Richie Doan, a senior majoring in Computer Science and Global and Regional Studies on his Task Force on U.S.-Japan Alliance in the World. “While this was certainly the most daunting day, I found it also to be the most rewarding. Looking back at our presentation, I am grateful and relieved to see how we managed to balance a cohesive message on the U.S.-Japan Alliance while respecting the multitude of nuances pertaining to this subject.”

Sherry L. Martin, a State Department official who served as the evaluator for Doan’s Task Force, questioned the students on issues ranging from whether they were all in agreement with the conclusions of their own research to consideration of timeline and resources for achieving their policy recommendations to the potential impact of changing demographics in Japan on state-to-state relations.

“During our defense, I was impressed by each member’s ability to dissect complex questions posed by [U.S. State Department] Dr. Martin and adapt their responses in the moment,” Doan said. “Evaluation Day, as nerve-wracking as it was, served as a testament to how transformative this experience was for all of us.”

Founded in 1983 by Jackson School Professor Emeritus Donald C. Hellmann, Task Force is a student-led experiential learning experience guided by faculty that engages students in research, writing, teamwork, and presentation skills under pressure. Students learn leadership by electing their Task Force Coordinator and Editor/s and collaboration to produce a quality product on a topic many do not know anything about at the start of the course.

“All the people involved with this [Task Force] process have been the highlight of this experience, especially our evaluator, who’s involvement really motivated our success and professionalism, and faculty, who guided us along the way.” said Mia Devins, who is graduating this June with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies focused on European Studies, of her Task Force on the illiberal drift in Europe.

The evaluator of Mia’s Task Force, Bettina Martin, a German government official, in addition to probing the students on their research, shared her own on-the-ground experience dealing with different political parties as a learning point for the students on the complexities and nuances of policymaking.

For Antonia Zito, a junior majoring in Global & Regional Studies and History who was in the Task Force on the U.S.-Japan alliance, how quickly her team came together in just one academic quarter impressed her. “Only a few classes bring a group of people together in a short amount of time, and the Task Force did exactly that. It was also refreshing to hear various points of views on a single topic based on everyone’s different research experience.”

Making a career impact
“Moving forward, I can only imagine that the lessons I learned about communication from this Task Force will continue to aid my ability to dialogue in the public policy space,” said Doan, who is interested in the intersection of technology and policy.

The most valuable skill he learned during the course were communication skills: “During our meetings, conversations often became contentious and tense. In these moments, I learned to improve my active listening skills. At the same time, I also honed my ability to share my ideas on subjects where opinions often conflicted. These skills helped me become a more sensitive listener while still being able to assert my opinion in a respectful and meaningful manner.”

Zito, who is not sure of a precise position for her career just yet, is certain she wants to be in the field of diplomacy: “I want to be able to experience what I did this quarter for the rest of my life. I want to be able to advise U.S. policy makers on what the best course of action may be. As a foreigner, I believe I would be able to provide a different perspective to various sectors of global affairs.”

“Of course I’ve learned so much about culture, politics and more, but my favorite things I’ve done in the Jackson School have involved putting myself out there for leadership roles like being the editor of my Task force and Euro Club president. I love that these experiences will stick with my and benefit me through many different fields and career paths,” said Devins, who would eventually like to work abroad in the Foreign Service but prior to that would like to gain leadership and project management experience in the travel industry.

“Overall, this experience had a huge impact on my career as it further confirmed that I want to work with foreign services within the U.S. government, as my team and I presented policy recommendations to the U.S. State Department,” Zito said. “This experience showed me that this is exactly the type of environment I want to be in for my future career, as I now know I can thrive in it.” Zito said she would promote the Task Force program “would explain the various skills that an individual, regardless of their position, gains from taking a class such as this one, and that it is a great opportunity for leadership skill-building.”

Read more about the Task Force experience in Q&As with Mia Devins, Richie Doan, and Antonia Zito.