Not even a pandemic could stop 107 Jackson School international studies seniors during winter quarter 2021 from diving into nine pressing global issues and presenting their ideas for solutions in front of the likes of a government cabinet member in Cambodia, a public lands commissioner, think tank democracy and technology leaders and an executive director of an immigrant rights non-profit organization, among others.
It was all part of the Jackson School’s Donald C. Hellmann Task Force Program, a faculty and student-led experiential learning capstone course that engages students in research, writing, teamwork and presentation skills under pressure. The winter quarter project, required for international studies majors, culminates in Task Force Evaluation Day, when the student present their research and policy recommendations to high-level external experts.
This year, due to the coronavirus, Task Force Day happened over three days on March 10, 11 and 12, involving 18 hours of student presentations over Zoom to evaluators located as far as Chile, Cambodia and Israel to New York, Washington D.C. and Washington state. The students similarly were dispersed across the country and the world.
“In Task Force, students in individual teams must translate their research and coursework into addressing real world issues and provide analysis and recommendations,” said Leela Fernandes, Director of the Jackson School of International Studies. “This year it also involved rigorous collaborative research during a pandemic which added extra challenges, but the students managed to put together amazing reports. Let me congratulate our Task Force students on rising to the occasion in the middle of very difficult circumstances.”
The topics? They ranged from wildfires in the western United States to climate justice and tribal sovereignty to border security technology to global media misinformation to immigrant rights in Washington state to Japan’s foreign policy and Israel and Middle East relations to Coronavirus response around the world to challenges among European Union member states.
View the list of Task Force 2021 reports, topics and evaluators
“Even though this Task Force was online, I really enjoyed the experience,” said Zoe Schenk, the student co-editor for the Task Force on Misinformation in Global Media. “One skill honed by Task Force is the ability to take a large, seemingly overwhelming issue, and narrowing it down into something manageable … As a class, we had a lot of discussions about how to tackle the issue of misinformation, and I learned a lot from the other students in my class about the topics they had researched about.”
Elizabeth Hanks said that the experience of serving as the student co-coordinator for her Task Force titled “Ending the Covid-19 Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy, Distribution and Disparities, taught her a lot about academic leadership: “I learned a lot about what it takes to produce a research project such as the Task Force Report, and how challenging it can be to organize a team of 12 people over Zoom and digital messaging during a pandemic.”
A sense of purpose
“Following the historic attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, the case for misinformation as a corrosive force in the world was made for our Task Force,” said Thomas Adrian, who also was in the Task Force on Misinformation in Global Media. “I was very pleased to see that we had been put on the frontlines of these highly salient issues … and the thought of producing a policy report that will encapsulate the zeitgeist of this moment animated me with a sense of purpose.”
Scott Radnitz, Jackson School Associate Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies and for the UW Center for an Informed Public who served as the faculty adviser to that same Task Force, noted that when the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill Riot happened “it was a formative event for the country, but also speaks directly to what was happening in our class. It created a sense of urgency by demonstrating what happens when disinformation is taken to its logical conclusion.”
Time-tested since the Task Force program begin in 1983, on Task Force Day the evaluators not only debate the research and possible policy solutions presented in the written report and oral presentation by the students, but also expose the students to a new dimension of professional conversation and often share their career advice.
“My favorite Task Force experience was definitely our evaluation with [Cabinet of the Government of Cambodia] Dr. [Rethy K.] Chhem,” said Hanks. “He informed us that the Cambodian government had actually already implemented policies like the ones our report recommended. Learning this helped us to all feel very confident in the work we did this quarter, as high-level experts and government officials had come up with the same policy ideas that we had…”
Conny Reuter, former Secretary General of the EU NGO umbrella network SOLIDAR who was the external evaluator of the Task Force on Challenges to Solidarity Among EU Member States and impressed by the Task Force report and policy recommendations added: “The students have shown an excellent understanding of the European challenges. This gives me trust and confidence in a new generation carrying the U.S.-European cooperation which is so much needed for global leadership in democracy and civic participation.”
“Not only was I impressed with the students’ research, writing, and analytical skills, but the [Task Force] program also allowed them [the students] to grapple with how to design thoughtful policy recommendations that respond to the increasingly complex issue of misinformation,” said Allie Funk, Senior Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House and Task Force Evaluator for Misinformation in Global Media. “The process very much simulates what it’s like to tackle these issues in a career setting.”
Joe Massey, Founding Director, Center for International Business, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Japan and China said as Task Force Evaluator for Maximizing Japan’s Position Between the U.S. and China: “The analysis and presentation of their results by this team of UW undergraduates was first-rate, dealing in a through-going, professional way with the multiple aspects of a complex and difficult real-world issue of national security and diplomacy that confronts Japan’s policy makers.”
A career-building course
Zoe Schenk, who will graduate in summer 2021 and is interested in a career in human rights, especially refugee studies and sustainable women’s development, said Task Force added another layer to her understanding of human rights: “Misinformation can cause so much damage to communities and individuals, and I don’t think I understood the extent to which information and how it is spread plays a role in everyday life. Whether it be spreading pertinent information about health crises, the results of elections, climate change data, or cultural events, accurate information and a free and fair media is important to protect everyone’s human rights.”
For Thomas Adrian, who is thinking of pursuing a career in communications or with non-governmental organizations in either North America or Asia-Pacific region after he graduates in June 2021, “The Donald C. Hellmann Task Force program solidifies my research, writing, policy analysis, and critical thinking skills to solve real world problems, which are all invaluable skills to possess no matter where anyone ends up in their career.”
Hanks, who intends to go to law school with a focus on international human rights, had this advice to prospective international majors: “Be prepared to work harder in the Task Force class alone than for any other class you’ve taken at the UW. Though Task Force is difficult and time consuming, it is incredibly worthwhile.”
Francesca Hillery, Member of Round Valley Tribes, Public Affairs and Communications Specialist, Frogfoot Communications, LLC, who evaluated the Task Force on Saving the Salish Sea: A Fight for Tribal Sovereignty and Climate Action for which the students also produced three digital stories in addition to the official Task Force report, said she impressed upon the Task Force students that “when they join the job market, whether they go to work for a non-profit of government agency, is the fact that communications are so important these days in almost any organization … and to learn how to produce a digital story … is a skill that could potentially make them more competitive.”
The digital stories produced in the Task Force on the Salish Sea include video, text, still photography and audio will be shown in the Salish Sea/Puget Sound region, at a UW Center for Human Rights spring online event, and internationally through SeaLegacy.org among other collaborators. The students “learned interview methods for meaningful and engaging interviews, especially when they do so with Indigenous leaders” said Patrick Christie, a professor in the Jackson School and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs who served as the faculty adviser on the Task Force.
The Task Force on the Salish Sea is the first class of several to be taught at the Jackson School and the School of Marine Sciences at the UW in a two-year grant-funded effort “Finding Common Ground: Communicating Across Borders to Restore the Puget Sound” that examines issues around climate change and how tribes are responding to the crisis.
Task Force 2021 concluded in an evening Zoom celebration with over 100 Task Force students, instructors and evaluators on Friday, March 12. Tony Lucero, Associate Director of the Jackson School and Chair of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, emceed the hour-long event during which student representatives from each group gave a summary of their Task Force experience and lessons learned.
Jackson School Director Leela Fernandes gave the opening and closing remarks. Fernandes, who joined the Jackson School on July 1, 2020, told the audience: “This is my first Task Force celebration. It is just such a dazzling combination of presentations that were inspiring, practical … and hopeful. You should be really proud of yourselves. All of you collectively are what makes the Jackson School so special.”