SEGL Summer Institute Tackles the Syrian Refugee Crisis, The SEGL Odyssey, International Relations Case Study

July 28, 2014

The capstone policy document.  It is one of SEGL’s most daunting assignments, and one of its most rewarding.  Each term our cohort of students chooses a current international challenge and drafts a detailed, well-researched policy document that proposes potential solutions to that challenge.  The students then present and defend their findings in front of leading experts.

The Summer Institute students did not shy away from difficulty: their document tackles the refugee crisis in Syria.  Who is responsible for caring for these refugees?  What are the best ways to protect them?  Is there an ethical way to balance diplomatic concerns with humanitarian concerns?  You can read the students’ answers to those questions in our next blog post.

The document writing process is student-centered and neatly choreographed.  We begin with a two-hour session where students brainstorm potential topics and then, using the consensus-building “approval voting” process, select a topic.  The faculty then meets to decide which subtopics the paper will contain (history and current status, diplomacy, legal, and military) and then, after canvassing students for preferences, create four groups to fill those subtopics.

On the next Monday, the students took a break from their Policy Document and took part in an SEGL rite-of-passage: the Odyssey.  After the students completed an extensive personal inventory, our staff created a personalized three-stop journey for each student; for example, a student with an interest in religion and civil rights might visit James Hampton’s folk art classic “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” at the National Museum of American Art, the Greensboro sit-in lunch counter at the Smithsonian American History Museum, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  The day ended with a Quaker-style meeting in which students sat together silently and, as they felt moved to speak, shared thoughts on the day.

On Tuesday, the students returned to their Policy Document, meeting with Muhammad Al Abdallah, the Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (and a Syrian refugee himself).  Al Abdallah, an expert in the usage of social media during the Syrian Civil War, fielded the students’ questions and helped them shape their recommendations.

On Thursday, we trekked to the George Washington University Gelman Libraries, where the students met with David Ettinger–whom many of the students call the best research librarian they have met–to learn how to use a large college library.  (This inevitably gives them a leg up the first time they need to do a research paper in college!)  They then spent a full day in the library, researching with online databases, periodicals, and the stacks.  (SEGL is the only high school group afforded the privilege of working in the GW libraries.)

On Friday, the students met with Bayan Bahloul, a 2013 Andi Leadership Institute (ALI) fellow (we have the pleasure of hosting the ALI at The School during the summer), and a Syrian refugee.  Her project, a Facebook page that helps Syrians abroad find their families who are still trapped by the fighting in the country, inspired our students to come up with their own creative solutions to these issues.

The students presented their initial findings before a “review panel” the following Monday: faculty members portraying a hypothetical U.S. special commission who ask tough, demanding questions that expose holes and require the students to think on their feet.  Though if you were in the room without any context you might think our faculty members were a pack of hungry wolves, the students report again and again that the tough atmosphere of the review panel helps make their document and ultimate presentation much stronger.

The faculty made suggestions on rough drafts shortly thereafter.  After each group completed its rough draft, the students formed new groups: editors, executive summary authors, publicists, and expert witnesses.  The editors ensure proper formatting, spelling, punctuation, and grammar; the executive summary authors write a short summary and choose a title for the document; the publicists decide to whom and how to send the document; the expert witnesses prepare for real world experts.  Our presentation to these experts, scheduled for Friday at the State Department, is still to come.

On Thursday, the students heard a basic introduction to international relations: first, an overview of social contract theory (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), and second, an overview of realism, liberalism, and other key IR theories.  The students asked themselves questions like “why do governments form in the first place, and what does that have to do with how governments ought to interact together?” “what is the proper role (if any) of the United Nations?” and “is it right for a country to risk its own citizens’ lives in order to promote human rights?”  Several case studies from earlier this summer (perhaps most notably our Rwanda case study) echoed through the conversation.

On Friday, the students put their crisis management knowledge to work in an intense, four-hour crisis simulation in which each student played a key member of the Executive Branch.  Over the course of the simulation, the President and her (yes, her) team learned important information about a series of international and domestic issues that required tough decision making under time pressure and also public relations skills.

Our faculty played members of the domestic and international community in videoconferences, videos, leaked “intelligence,” and in person (at the height of the action, the President was required to spend ten minutes reading a bedtime story to her child…).  We won’t spoil the details for future terms; suffice to say, lives were lost, lives were saved, ethical decisions were bandied about, and the President’s final press conference was impressive.  For many reasons, it was a fitting final Ethics and Leadership exercise for a terrific group of students.

After a final run to Eastern Market on Sunday afternoon, the students plunged into preparation for their final projects.  The two assignments are the Credo (“given everything you have learned as a result of this summer, where do you stand on the ethical issues that matter most to you, and how do you want to live your life as a result?”) and a business plan for the social venture each student will launch in her or his local community at the end of the summer.  Both of these projects show students at their culminating best–drawing insight from across the term and from deep inside themselves.