State Department project helps students discover democracy

Diplomacy Lab gives undergraduates hands-on experience solving world problems

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For third-year College students Daniel Rosenfeld and Sky Miller, working on research for the State Department counts as a normal after-class activity.

Their work comes through the Diplomacy Lab, which was created by the State Department to give college students and faculty experience solving challenges currently facing department officials. Currently, the lab — which is in its pilot year — exists only at the University and William & Mary.

“The idea is to give students actionable, tangible projects that the State Department is working on and let the students work to create solutions,” Rosenfeld said.

Most students participate in Diplomacy Lab as a class requirement. Professors of politics, anthropology and sociology have included Diplomacy Lab projects in their courses as a way for students to apply their learning to real-life situations.

Unlike most other students working with the program, Rosenfeld and Miller are also completing their own independent study. Their research requires them to work closely with Tomicah Tillemann, the senior advisor to the Secretary for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies, via video chat. Tillemann visited Grounds earlier in the semester to meet with the pair, as well as the other students and faculty involved in Diplomacy Lab.

Rosenfeld and Miller’s project involves developing an implementation strategy for the remodeling of the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental organization which brings together established organizations around the world to provide support for emerging democracies and civil societies.

“We are doing case studies on intergovernmental organizations that are successful in the kinds of qualities the Community of Democracies wants in this new model,” Miller said. “We are doing what we can to find implementable, best practices in those case studies.”

Rosenfeld and Miller believe Diplomacy Lab gives them experience which will likely lend itself to a future career.

“We both are really, really passionate about civic engagement and democracy,” Rosenfeld said. “We love the chance to get out in the real world, work with a real world partner and do something really concrete.”

Because they also work with State Department advisors, Rosenfeld and Miller have to make sure everyone involved in their project has a common understanding of the research being conducted.

“I think [the hardest part] for me has just been trying to make sure all the different stakeholders are on the same page,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s been making sure we all know what we are trying to do and moving forward in the same direction.”

Issues like these, and others, will be considered as the State Department goes forward with the Diplomacy Lab. After this year, the program will be tweaked based on student and professor feedback and then implemented at other universities.

Upon the completion of their study, Rosenfeld and Miller’s research will become part of a United States report given to a Community of Democracies Working Group, which consists of a number of countries who will work together to ultimately restructure the Community of Democracies. Tillemann even mentioned Rosenfeld and Miller’s project in a conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama, and says the president values the work of Community of Democracies as a whole.

“I’m a very idealistic person, so the idea of working to improve an organization like this — that is working to support and promote democracy and make it better — is really cool,” Miller said.

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