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Resiliency in action: Task Force 2020 zooms around the world

March 11, 2020

Niko Switek Jackson Task Force 2020
Niko Switek, Jackson Task Force Faculty Instructor 2020, at the HUB in front of the screen that displays his students on Zoom discussing the potential of Europarties with their evaluator, a senior executive of ALDE Party in Brussels. March 13, 2020

By Monique Thormann

Through the courses we offer under our Donald C. Hellmann Task Force Program, we build bridges across academia and the policy world, between the interests and priorities of different states, and between local organizations and their governments and international agencies. This year the coronavirus crisis forced us to work even harder to make and maintain these connections.

Adapting to an evolving global crisis while presenting foreign policy recommendations
Less than a week before the 37th annual undergraduate capstone final, high-stakes Task Force Day — a required rite of passage for International Studies majors—the Jackson School learned due to the coronavirus crisis it needed to convert all of its in-person presentations by 129 students to an online, real-time format across three continents.

By using technologies, conducting quick turnaround practice sessions and Jackson School staff, students and faculty working together, on March 13, 2020, Task Force Day high-level experts based in Accra, Berlin, Brussels, Ottawa, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Washington state were in conversation with our students who were similarly dispersed across the country and the world. It involved 18 hours of presentations by the students to 10 faculty instructors and nine evaluators external to the UW, who give their views on the Task Force research and applicability of the foreign policy recommendations.

“It took a massive effort to reimagine our Task Force Day,” said Reşat Kasaba, director of the Jackson School and the Stanley D. Golub Chair in International Studies. “That we have succeeded beyond our wildest imagination is due to the concerted efforts of our faculty, staff and students. I am grateful to them for their hard work and for making 2020 an unforgettable Task Force year.”

The 11 Task Force topics this year ranged from political opposition in Japan to understanding of radicalization through a case study of ISIL foreign fighters to the global race for AI and U.S. foreign policy to the right to sea ice to European defense strategies and Europarties to climate to stability and security issues with Russia and more.

Full list of Task Force 2020 topics, instructors and evaluators

“I initially expected the switch to Zoom to lessen the pressure on our presentation and lower the bar. But I was proven completely wrong,” said Melina Schmidt, a senior who had recently returned from the UW Rome Center due to coronavirus precautions where she was part of the Task Force on European defense strategies for 2030. “Our evaluator put in an extraordinary amount of effort to walk us through his thoughts on our entire report and provided us with constructive feedback, which was such a great way to learn from the perspectives of an expert in our subject matter.”

Her evaluator was Jan Techau, Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, online from Berlin as one of the nine evaluators on Zoom for Task Force Day.

Clara Yardley, a senior with a global health focus and minor in Spanish for her Task Force on Sub-Saharan renewable energies, had a similar experience: “Despite being online via Zoom, Task Force Evaluation Day was still fulfilling and humbling. Having productive conversation with Dr. Mohammed Amin Adam, the Deputy Minister of Energy of Ghana, was a true honor and unique experience.”

“It was a new learning curve for me. We had done a couple of run-throughs, but I was apprehensive of the internet reliability in Ghana, fortunately everything went smoothly,” said Francis Abugbilla, a doctoral student in international studies who was an assistant adviser in Yardley’s Task Force, which was overseen by Daniel Hoffman, Chair of African Studies at the Jackson School. “We defied the challenges imposed by the coronavirus, demonstrated that human ingenuity is inexhaustible. We rose to the challenge and showed that we are indeed ‘Boundless’!”

“We shared valuable ideas that will continue to define our impressions on how the energy sector works in Africa, and the kinds of intervention required to supply reliable energy services,” said Honorable Dr. Mohammed Amin Adam, the deputy minister of energy of Ghana. “I have already conveyed to the Ghana Energy Commission the recommendations of the Task Force and there is no doubt that some of them will be considered strongly in policy decisions in Ghana.”

In April, the Honorable Mohammed Amin Adam confirmed that Ghana’s Ministry of Energy to adopt the two main policy recommendations from the Task Force Report into the country’s new Draft National Energy Policy, which is being finalized for submission to Cabinet for approval.

The two recommendations are on the expansion of the national electrification scheme (rural electrification) to cover mini-grids for off-grid communities and the development of regulations to promote and govern bio-energy (biofuel, biogas, biomass) industries.

Task Force takeaways: Foreign policy–and job–skills
Coronavirus or not, Task Force, held over 10 weeks in winter quarter, is the culmination of the international studies major. Set-up as an immersive experience, each year brings new pressing global issues that need solutions. Students, who are grouped by topic selected by a Jackson School faculty instructor, do everything from learning a new region or foreign policy issue to organizing themselves to produce a substantive, well-researched report that will be read by a senior-level global expert in their field and presenting an in-person, two-hour briefing to that expert.

It is a unique, time-tested class format that the Jackson School has offered since 1983. It is one of the only of its kind offered at the undergraduate level in international studies in the U.S.

Johnna Bollesen, a double major in International Studies and Communication with an interest in environmental journalism who was on the Task Force about Arctic sea ice rights, emphasized how the course “instilled me with fundamental skills in writing policy,” and that Task Force Evaluation Day taught her “how to condense an abundance of information in order to relay the key points while also expressing the significance of the topic …” She is interested in a career in environmental journalism.

“The leadership skills and time management I gained through this role as the [student] coordinator for my Task Force [on the potential of Europarties] will help me to maintain good priorities on what to achieve with the deadlines,” said Ashley Tang, who expects to graduate in summer 2020 and hopes to go to law school.

“To be able to engage in high level discussion with him [Honorable Dr. Mohammed Amin Adam, Deputy Minister of Energy in Ghana] about one of the most serious issues facing his country was incredibly rewarding,” said Clara Yardley, a senior, following her March 13 evaluation. “It proved the benefits of high-level research and intense dedication to project over the course of the quarter, and it showed me what I am capable of.” After graduation, she hopes to engage in social entrepreneurship in the global health and energy sectors, and eventually attend law school.

Alexander Zhuk, a student in Jackson School Instructor Scott Montgomery’s Task Force “Defense of a Consolidated Federal Climate Effort,” noted from his Task Force Day Evaluator Craig Gannett, Partner and Pacific Northwest Climate Change Attorney, Davis Wright Tremaine Law Firm, how “we were challenged on the arguments made in our paper [report] and we had to explain in great detail how we envision our proposals to work in real life.”

A class that goes beyond Seattle into the world, literally
“I think Task Force really developed my time-management and team-working skills more than anything. Procrastination was simply not an option – the demands for quantity and quality of our writing were too high,” said Melina Schmidt in reflecting upon skills she learned in her Task Force, which was one of two based at the UW Rome Center.

Schmidt was one of 21 students who signed up to one of the two Task Force groups based at the UW Rome Center, marking the fourth year of Task Force Abroad. This year, Faculty Marie Anchordoguy and Lecturer Ambassador John Koenig led the Rome Task Force groups, immersing students respectively in European Union-China Relations and European defense strategic choices for 2030.

“For anyone who is willing and able, I highly encourage seniors to complete the Task Force as a study abroad at the UW Rome Center. It completely elevated my experience … by placing our topic in a truly European context,” said Schmidt in a Q&A following Task Force Day on Zoom with her instructor Ambassador Koenig and evaluator, Jan Techau at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.

Task Force can also offer shorter research trips abroad. This year, the nine students in the Task Force on the Arctic Right to Sea Ice, led by Nadine Fabbi, Managing Director of the Canadian Studies Center and Michelle Koutnik, Research Associate Professor and glaciologist at UW’s Earth and Space Sciences, spent a week in Ottawa, Canada, meeting with Inuit colleagues at the Inuit post-secondary school, scientists at Canadian Ice Services and senior policy analysts at Crown Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. They also visited embassies and attended a symposium on sea ice change at the University of Ottawa.

“During our trip, we were able to learn great information from the sources themselves and learned firsthand about the experiences of those working on the issues as it is,” wrote Claire Cowan, a student in the Arctic Task Force, in reflecting upon her Ottawa experience following Task Force Day. “Task Force gave me a lot of valuable skills such as time management, working within a group, research skills, and also how to edit effectively. I think these are extremely helpful as they will be essential in future projects or jobs that I will have.”


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