Laurie Mincieli: Tufts EPIIC — Taking Student Research Far Beyond the Classroom

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With political uncertainty still gripping many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), focused research on the region has never been more critical. Last week, Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) held a Carnegie Corporation-sponsored symposium meant to provide thoughtful and critical analysis on the future of MENA, not only to unpack many of the daunting international relations issues facing the region, but also to help educate and prepare the next generation of scholars to better tackle these issues.

I sat in on the event as part of the Carnegie Corporation International Program team. Just a few years ago, I was a student of international relations at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I know from personal experience how important combining political theory with real world case studies can be. The gap between academia and policymakers is wide, and the analysis that could help inform policymakers is often lost in this void. That is why the Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) program at Tufts University is important, and why the symposium was edifying to attend.  By bringing together both academics and practitioners with an expertise in the MENA region to engage in direct conversation, participants at the event – which included students, professors, and the interested public – gained special insight into the political turmoil caused by the Arab Spring.

More importantly, the EPIIC students actively participated as moderators and presenters, highlighting the unique opportunities they are given as members of the program. Though millennials are often thought of as disengaged and politically unmotivated, the students at Tufts significantly undermined this popular stereotype. EPIIC has given many of these undergraduates amazing opportunities to enhance their traditional college learning with additional lectures and study abroad options, and these students have taken full advantage. Student presenters at the symposium, including Sarah Butterfield and Isabel Weiner (both in the class of 2014), conducted field research in volatile locations. Taking their studies into the field with open minds, they became better informed by history as it was being made including in Egypt during the removal of then-President Mohamed Morsi. Witnessing these events and speaking with a sampling of Egyptian society ultimately influenced their understanding of international relations, and bolstered their research projects. Other students traveled to Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Syrian refugee camps to learn directly from the situation on the ground - invaluable experiences that will separate them from the rest of the international graduates in the country.

Not only are the students able to engage with international relations outside the traditional classroom setting, students at EPIIC are learning to build relationships between scholars and practitioners in a way that bodes well for future collaboration between the two fields. Part of IGL, the Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES) is an organization helping improve civilian-military relations by conducting joint projects with students of both civil and military institutes. Hearing from both practitioners and scholars has clearly made an impact on these students, as they displayed an ability to transition between theoretical debates and real world policy implications more naturally during their presentations, and were comfortable combining both angles when looking at current political challenges.

Not all students of international relations are given this many fruitful opportunities during their course of study, which is a shame. Personally, I wish I had the access during my academic career to the international experts and local actors that the EPIIC network contains. By grounding their theoretical learning in the classroom with immersive experiences in the field, this next generation of scholars will be better prepared to bridge the academia-policy divide, and contribute meaningfully to some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.