Virginia Tech students seeking to gain real world experience in the realm of policymaking now have a unique opportunity to conduct research for actual U.S. State Department issues and present their findings and policy solutions to relevant State Department entities. It is all part of a new program that takes select undergraduate students out of the classroom and into the offices of Washington D.C.

Virginia Tech just concluded its pilot Washington Semester in Global Engagement through the Government and International Affairs program. This new initiative includes coursework in foreign policy and diplomacy, an internship or externship and participation in the Diplomacy Lab.

Every year the U.S. State Department issues a list of research projects that they source to participating universities through their Diplomacy Lab program. The program allows students, under the guidance of their professors, to contribute directly to the policymaking process and present their work to the State Department.

This Spring semester, students enrolled in the Washington Semester worked with Gabriel “Gabi” Mitchell and Joe Karle, two PhD candidates in the Government and International Affairs program and the Planning, Governance and Globalization program, respectively, on the issue of “Avoiding A Gaza War: U.S. Strategies for Dealing With The Conflict.”

“Gabi and I bid on projects that matched our expertise,” Karle said, “and we were lucky enough to get our first choice.” As the students’ instructors and mentors throughout the semester-long project, Karle and Mitchell knew the importance of harnessing their strengths for the maximum benefit of the students.

“Students came in with literally no background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it was our job to bring them up to speed quickly so they could feel confident about building their project and presenting it to the State Department and the Palestine-Israel desk,” Mitchell said. “Joe and I enjoyed giving them their freedom to do their own work and that is what this experience is all about.”

Both Mitchell and Karle were impressed with the students’ willingness to meet the challenge head-on and their ability to handle a project of this scope. “They were highly motivated and embraced the opportunity,” Mitchell said.

The experience allows students to dive deeper into policy issues and get a first-hand look of how the decision-making process plays out. “Most of my undergraduate classes in Blacksburg were either an inch wide and mile deep or mile wide and inch deep. These classes go mile wide and mile deep,” said James Kenney, a student in this semester’s program.

Brandon Boccher, also a student in the program, remarked on how the opportunity gave him rare access to working with staffers at the State Department that provided invaluable insight. “When I was working on the presentation for the State Department, I asked for advice from some of the staffers working in the Senator’s office where I was interning. I found out that the legislative director in my office was actually in the Middle East during the last Gaza war. She gave us many tips and tricks on certain aspects of the conflict itself,” Boccher said.

“The Diplomacy Lab program is an opportunity for these students to come to D.C. and talk policy with practitioners in the field and at the State Department,” Karle said. “But it also allows them to get into that mindset themselves of how to address an issue and then communicate possible solutions.”

Ariel Rundbaken, another student in the program, credits the Diplomacy Lab with opening her eyes to the foreign policy process and the challenges of tackling real-life problems facing our world. “Presenting a solution to preventing the next Gaza War to the State Department was challenging, but by the end of the semester you learn how foreign policy makers approach real-life situations and that is something that is very beneficial to learn early on within International Affairs or Political Science at a university,” Rundbaken said.

The application period for the fall installment of the Washington Semester in Global Engagement is open until Friday, May 5. More information about the program and how to apply can be found on the program’s website.