As O’Neill students return for the fall 2021 semester, those in O’Neill Senior Lecturer Bill Foley’s J-531 National and Homeland Security in America course will get the chance to contribute to the U.S. Department of State’s policymaking process. For the seventh time in as many years, Foley will lead his students through a Diplomacy Lab project, a research opportunity allowing students to dive into complex foreign policy challenges proposed by State Department officials.
For fall 2021, students will evaluate the effectiveness of social and cultural exchange programs for improving the United States’ image, messaging, and foreign relations with various nations.
“The Diplomacy Lab project gives students a chance to engage the international dialogue in a way that no other embedded government project can do,” Foley explains. “Our students actually become the research arm of the U.S. Department of State.”
Students are listed as project authors on official State Department best practices reports, receive a certificate of appreciation from the agency, and may even be invited to present their projects to State Department officials. But Foley stresses the work these students do is about more than accolades—they contribute to policy action on an international scale.
“The State Department actually uses the outcomes of our research,” he says. “For example, a previous project focused on port security for U.S. shipping with five African Gold Coast nations. State Department officials wrote to students that they actually changed the policy on how they used warnings to host port nations based on our students’ research.”
Diplomacy Lab projects often center around areas of concern for the federal government.
In fall 2020, 15 O’Neill IUPUI graduate students in J-531 focused on the American Corners program, with three locations in Kosovo. American Corners is a partnership between the U.S. Embassy and local libraries in other countries that offer English language workshops and classes on U.S. culture, politics, and more to the people who live there.
“It’s an opportunity for those in Kosovo to learn more about the United States, but it’s also a chance for Americans to understand that other countries want to become independent and be more like the United States,” says Lauren Francis, a Homeland Security and Emergency Management MPA student who worked on the fall 2020 project.
The student groups each examined one of the three Kosovo locations, meeting virtually with each Corner’s director, researching the services offered, best practices for and barriers to accessing those services, the resources available, and whether the program was advancing the U.S. Embassy’s strategic goals.
Their objective was to evaluate the overall effectiveness of the American Corners network and develop recommendations to improve how they deliver their services.
“Making education more accessible to people was a big goal for them,” says Blaire Viehweg (MSCJPS’21 and BSCJ’20), who also took the course in fall 2021. “We looked at what resources they needed to make that happen, what they were lacking, and how they could overcome those obstacles.”
While the course ended in December 2020, the students’ work was so successful that the State Department selected them as one of the top four projects in the nation and invited them to present their findings in a virtual conference in February 2021.
To help consolidate the projects into a 15-minute presentation, Foley gathered a team of students including Viehweg and Francis, Kevin Dobbyn and Taylor Kovats—all of whom are working on their MPAs in Homeland Security and Emergency Management—and Angelica Ronke, a graduate student in the IU School of Social Work.
“It was great to not just crank out another research paper,” Dobbyn says. “We received feedback from the American Corners’ director but also got to promote the U.S. Embassy as they try to advance relations in an area that has a lot of tension.”
Dobbyn is a Major in the U.S. Army. He served overseas on a combat mission to Afghanistan and did a rotation in Germany.
“I’ve seen the effect we have on policy through the military,” he says. “It was great to see how the State Department is influencing and helping our foreign policy and strategic goals in other countries through programs like the American Corners.”
That perspective will last Dobbyn through his military career. Both Viehweg and Francis say that, while this project wasn’t directly related to their areas of studies, the lessons they learned from it will carry over into their future roles.
“Being able to talk about what I’ve learned and educate other people about it has been a big part of this project,” Francis says. “This experience will stand out on my resume because, not only do I have criminal justice work to lean on, but I also now have foreign policy work experience.”
Viehweg says that work helped her learn how to address complex issues by drilling down into smaller actionable items to take the first step toward change—a skill she plans on applying to the criminal justice system.
But she says it also helped broaden her perspective of the world around her, to look beyond our borders and get involved in the global community.
“The collaboration with the Diplomacy Lab provides students with a different and unique perspective outside the classroom,” she says. “Rather than just reading articles about Serbia or foreign policy, we were able to provide recommendations that could be implemented to further help foreign policy and help people in Kosovo. It’s been very eye-opening and humbling to see the good work people are doing in other places around the world.”