Learning by doing—on a global scale

May 22, 2020

By Rebecca Cohen (MPP ‘09)

In 20 years of global experiences, roughly 600 Ford School students have traveled to 18 countries, not including internships or study abroad. The lessons they bring back with them have helped shape careers of impact.

From the idea that a group of students had in 1999 to offer hands-on international policy experience grew the Ford School’s International Economic Development Program (IEDP). Born too, was the central concept behind all of its global immersion offerings: that interacting with public policy officials abroad and witnessing their policy concerns, frameworks, and processes will challenge students’ stereotypes and preconceived notions and provide valuable lessons that cannot be learned solely in a classroom. When done well, this type of experiential learning allows students to take an active role, bridge theory and practice, expand knowledge, and sharpen skills.

Professor Susan Waltz, who has guided a number of IEDP trips, explains that the course is an experiential learning hybrid, and began with the idea that students could approach the work as if they were consultants for the World Bank, OECD, USAID, and other international development agencies. “Today the endeavor is more typically cast as a learning experience for students, helping them appreciate the dynamics of policy formulation and implementation in a fundamentally unfamiliar context.” Waltz gives students a “driving question,” and then, as Waltz puts it, “the IEDP provides them the  opportunity to think through—and to walk through—the experience of international project work from start to finish.”  

The late Professor Katherine Terrell, an international labor economist with a joint appointment at the Ford School and Ross, provided the blueprint for IEDP. Terrell served as a faculty advisor for the first two trips. By leveraging her own contacts in Costa Rica and the Czech Republic, Terrell ensured students had access to high-ranking policy professionals working in the government, business, and NGO sectors. Over the years, nearly two dozen faculty have been involved in the program in one way or another, lending their expertise and contacts to the global experience.

IEDP begins with a classroom study of the economics, politics, and culture of the focus country. Students help plan who they meet with on the ground, thinking through why these individuals are important in the overall policy context. Waltz explains that going through this process is a learning experience for many students: “Students have to provide a rationale for who they want to meet with. High ranking officials aren’t the only ones who can supply useful information, and often they’re not accessible anyway.   Smaller NGOs can provide community-level information that isn’t otherwise available.”

The course culminates with a weeklong trip to the country during which students engage in discussions with different stakeholders, including policymakers, foreign development agencies, business leaders, and civil society organizations. In these meetings and unscripted conversations lie opportunities for students to practice professional skills such as observation and active listening, behavioral awareness in different cultural contexts, thinking on their feet, and asking new questions that drive them to policy recommendations.

Susan Waltz spoke of how the course mirrors projects students might encounter in the future. “As with any work that takes you out of the office, the students must balance the intensity of the experience in the field with the analysis and writing of the report when they return,” Waltz said. She adds, “The job doesn’t end when you get back from the trip.”

In IEDP, we helped build the experience, figured out the logistics, and engaged with policymakers at all levels. We had to determine what the right questions were to the right people,  exactly what I do as a diplomat.  Without the opportunities the Ford School provided me to visit and learn on the ground in Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Paris, and South Africa, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
— Kristen Grauer (MPP ‘01), Foreign Service Officer, State Department

The Ford School added to its international experiential opportunities in 2011, establishing a new Chinese policy course that includes a two-week study abroad component, led by professor Ann Lin.

And over the past two years, the opportunities have grown dramatically, jump-started by major gifts from Ambassador Ron Weiser and Mrs. Eileen Weiser. In 2018, undergraduate students were newly offered an IEDP-like experience: a groundbreaking new seminar course that includes a study trip to Costa Rica. 

This year over winter break, four students accompanied professor Hardy Vieux (MPP/JD 97) on a trip to volunteer with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which memorializes disappeared persons, analyzes forensic evidence of rights abuses, and conducts public awareness activities around these priority issues. Students assisted with the organization’s internal monitoring and evaluation. 

Student-Initiated Projects now provide a wide range of opportunities for Ford School students to learn about foreign policy, national security, immigration, international development, and human rights. 

Challenges and competitions are available for all levels of students. For example, the EU delegation’s Schuman Challenge is open to undergraduates. Graduate students actively participate in group projects and conferences around the world, such as in the North American Colloquium, to discuss topics of NAFTA, immigration, and climate change. In 2019, more than 100 students participated in global immersion activities at the Ford School. 

As these offerings have grown, the Ford School also strengthened its infrastructure to provide additional support. The new Weiser Diplomacy Center and the International Policy Center provide funding, staff guidance, and logistical support for the experiential programs. 

After traveling to Guatemala during her 2020 winter break, Maggie Barnard (MPP ‘21) reflects on her experiences.

Applying the community collaboration lessons and program evaluation skills I learned in the classroom to a real-world situation was a crucial academic milestone for me.
—Maggie Barnard (MPP '21)

She says that to do this work in a different country and to see first-hand the challenges that organizations face to find justice, will help her “set realistic expectations for what I might encounter in the future.”

Ultimately, Waltz says global experiences are “not for the students. It’s about them.” Just prior to print, students announced next year’s IEDP location: We’re off to Kenya! 


Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2020 State & Hill.