The capstone policy document. It is one of SEGL’s most daunting assignments, and one of its most rewarding. Each semester 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.
This semester did not shy away from difficulty: the Fall 2013 document tackled the critical relationship between the United States and Iran. Should we trust the “new” regime? Should sanctions be removed, and if so, under what circumstances? How can we address human rights violations in Iran? What effect might our actions have on Israel, and on Iran’s other neighbors? You can read the final draft here.
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 situation, economics, nuclear weapons, Israel, neighboring countries, human rights) and then, after canvassing students for preferences, create six groups to fill those subtopics.
On the next Wednesday we trek to the George Washington University Gelman Libraries, where the students meet with David Edelman–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 spend a full day in the library, researching online databases, periodicals, and the stacks. (SEGL is the only high school group afforded the privilege of working in the GW libraries.)
The students present their initial findings before a “review panel”: faculty members portraying a hypothetical U.S. delegation 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 makes suggestions on rough drafts shortly thereafter. After each group completes its rough draft, new groups of students form: 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 main presentation was to three Iran experts at the U.S. State Department. For an hour and fifteen minutes, the students traded ideas and theories with these experts, ultimately earning high praise for their efforts. There were hugs and high-fives amongst the students afterwards.
The students had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer the following week, and peppered him (and later the Senator’s foreign policy director) with informed questions about Iran. (“I go to a lot of meetings with the Senator,” another staffer told the students afterwards. “I could tell he really enjoyed the exchange with you.”)
Another exchange on Iran came during the final case study of the semester, our Executive Power/Crisis Simulation week. The students met with perennial SEGL guest expert and former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in preparation for a five-hour Crisis Simulation in which each of the students plays a key member of the Executive Branch. (Bolten was present on 9/11, the fall of Lehman Brothers, the Iraq surge, Hurricane Katrina, and other Bush Administration crises.) Bolten gave the students a dilemma from a real-world situation that was top secret at the time: what do you do when the Israelis ask you to bomb a Syrian nuclear enrichment facility that the Iranians are helping to build? The students grappled with the problem–taking in the arguments from Vice President Cheney, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the State Department along the way–before Bolten gave President Bush’s decision and the reasoning behind it. The Friday night Crisis Simulation had an added intensity because of Bolten’s visit. (See below for pictures–no, we can’t give you any details!)