Tackling real global challenges has become one step closer for seniors and a handful of honors students in their junior year majoring in international studies at the Jackson School.
On Friday, March 11, over 120 students presented their research and made policy recommendations on current affairs topics in front of high-ranking U.S. government officials, senior advisors in prominent policy think tanks and leading experts in legislation.
It was all part of Task Force, a capstone course that has been a hallmark, hands-on experience in policymaking for undergraduates for over 30 years at the Jackson School.
In Task Force, for seven weeks in winter quarter, students research, write, collate and edit a substantive report aimed at policymakers, and then develop oral presentations and posters to brief high-profile practitioner experts.
The course culminates in Task Force Day for which students prepare, present and defend their stance on one of eight topics. Topics are chosen for their relevance to the world by Task Force instructors, who are Jackson School faculty and Practitioner-in-Residence U.S. Congressman Adam Smith.
This year, topics ranged from U.S. policy in Asia after the 2015 elections in Burma, a comprehensive U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis, evolving U.S. cybersecurity policy, and U.S. policy toward Iran after the nuclear deal to the Arctic as a new player in international relations, anti-racist education in Brazil and a new era in U.S.-China relations.
Students learn “behind the scenes” foreign policymaking
“I liked how the evaluator [former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Thomas J. Christensen] shared his own experience. He showed us [a policy recommendation] is
usually not an easy “A-B” option,” said Athiyya Husniyah, a student in the Task Force on “Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia.”
Emily Fung, chief editor for the final report for that same Task Force added: “The experience of Task Force taught me about the ambiguity and intricacy of foreign policy.”
“I also learned the importance of delegation and trusting others to get things done — and done on time,” she said on the nuts-and-bolts of putting together a comprehensive, single report and presentation that represented all of the groups’ work. “You had to be self-driven. It was initially hard to structure yourselves in a group.”
Others learned how to delve into a new subject matter. “The topic [Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia] was something I knew nothing about. It was all new. I learned so much about the region,” said Kate Clark, a senior double majoring in journalism and international studies. “Task Force is also about students teaching each other.”
Meeting policymaker standards
For the evaluators, who this year traveled from the other Washington, Turkey and Brazil to participate in Task Force Day, the format of Task Force replicates what it is really like to develop policy recommendations.
“Task Force is a good simulation of government policymaking: from writing a report, briefing it and answering hard questions — being challenged on ideas,” said U.S. State Department Deputy Coordinator of Sanctions Policy Christopher Backemeyer, who evaluated the Task Force on “U.S. Policy Toward Iran After the Nuclear Deal.”
Backemeyer was also the keynote speaker for the Task Force Dinner in UW Club for over 150 Task Force evaluators, students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate Task Force Day.
“The report and presentation my group gave today was so impressive, I was skeptical it was even real,” he said in thanking the students for their hard work. “What I enjoyed most was getting the opportunity to get a new perspective on a topic I have spent the better part of a decade on, which is the Iranian nuclear file. It is very easy to get caught up in the other Washington bubble and politics. But today I was able to sit down and talk to you, a group of young up-and-coming leaders, on what is an incredibly current and immediate issue. I was writing on this exact topic … just the other day,” he noted.
In encouraging students to pursue careers, he noted: “You are already incredibly motivated and Task Force was at a level well above an undergraduate level,” he said. “Just the fact that you’re doing team projects that other people aren’t — it turns out in every job, every day is a team project. You have already gotten to that point. You should be incredibly proud.”