A photo of three students standing on the grass in front of the Department of the State building in Washington D.C.
(Left to right) Ryan Jackson, Harleen Singh and Natasha Romero Moskala presented at the State Department at the 2024 Diplomacy Lab Fair on April 19 in Washington, D.C. (Contributed)

In State Department’s Diplomacy Lab, VCU students reach across the globe

A political science class is making a real-world impact on key U.S. policy areas, including supporting one country on its path to independence.

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Right near Australia, the small country of Papua New Guinea is a world away from Richmond. But in partnership with the U.S. State Department, a Virginia Commonwealth University political science class bridged the distance this past school year – in the name of independence.

The 20 students in the class led by professor Judy Twigg, Ph.D., created a guide to independence for the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea, and the product will benefit the Oceania country’s Autonomous Region of Bougainville on its path to independence. The project came to life through Diplomacy Lab, a State Department program through which dozens of American universities conduct research on key U.S. policy areas. Diplomacy Lab dates to 2013, and VCU participated for the first time during the fall 2023 semester.

“We have such a strong array of faculty and departments and programs who are working in the international arena here at VCU. It was a pretty easy sell to have VCU welcomed by the State Department into the program,” Twigg said.

Based on input from embassies, consulates and other offices worldwide, the State Department compiles a bid book of projects, such as research papers, presentations or databases, for its university partners to consider. The variety may be surprising: Twigg noted that among the 75 projects in the bid book she reviewed, one was tied to re-engineering the pouch used for diplomatic courier operations – and she hopes other VCU schools and departments will consider Diplomacy Lab initiatives.

“We are welcome to bid on more than one project for the State Department,” she said.

Twigg said due to the timeline of signing up for projects, she couldn’t gauge student interest in the subject she chose. For its inaugural session, the class worked on a guidebook to independence for the Autonomous Government of Bougainville, responding to an assignment directly from the United States Embassy in Papua New Guinea.

Twigg had two criteria for the project she chose – that it would engage a wide range of student interest, and that it would have a manageable end goal. She also wanted to draw on VCU faculty expertise, including from Andrea Simonelli, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science who researches Pacific Island politics, and John L. Froitzheim, Ph.D., who focuses on international law and the politics of developing countries.

“We had really great people here at VCU that I knew could help,” Twigg said.

For the students, she wanted to steer clear of a traditional research paper and instead delve into other formats and ways of thinking.

“One of the skills I wanted to teach the students is how to write a good policy memo,” Twigg said. “I also wanted them to develop the skills for delivering a really good, polished, effective presentation to policymakers. And this project wrapped all that up together.”

She also wanted students to lead much of the project, so after assigning reading and bringing in guest speakers, she let her class develop the project workflow, individual assignments, team formation and timeline.

“It was awesome. They had such control and such ownership over this process,” Twigg said.

“The collaboration portion was really there, and that made the class even more enjoyable,” added Harleen Singh, a pre-law student majoring in political science and criminal justice and minoring in business.

A photo of three building standing on a balcony in a city.
(Left to right) Ryan Jackson, Harleen Singh and Natasha Romero Moskala met students from other colleges and viewed their presentations to the State Department at the 2024 Diplomacy Lab Fair. (Contributed)

Students also worked closely with the embassy, which gave them real-world insight into their work. It was “truly like being able to stay connected with the embassy and making sure that we’re on track with them working toward our final goal,” Singh said.

At the end of the class, students presented their research and results to the embassy staff and other State Department officials via Zoom. The feedback “was just spectacular,” Twigg said – so much so that four were invited to deliver their presentation to the State Department at the 2024 Diplomacy Lab Fair on April 19 in Washington, D.C.

Carrie Coberly, instructor and experiential learning coordinator of political science, accompanied the students to the conference. She served as an American diplomat for more than a decade before returning to academia, and she embraces how Diplomacy Lab is supporting a new generation.

“I saw that this program really is developing the skills that students need to be the diplomats of tomorrow,” Coberly said. “They developed amazing presentation skills. They provided cogent policy insights into a complex issue and would be well-prepared to enter diplomacy should that be their choice.”

Natasha Romero Moskala, a political science and business student in the Honors College, said she appreciated getting to see how students from other colleges approached their research projects, and the difference they made. Romero Moskala has kept in contact with some of the people she met at the conference.

“I am so thankful to the political science department and Dr. Twigg for making this possible,” she said.

Twigg will start a new Diplomacy Lab project in the upcoming fall semester, with the focus on PEPFAR – the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a program through the State Department that combats HIV/AIDS outbreaks in more than 50 countries. PEPFAR wants participating nations to take greater ownership of their prevention initiatives.

“The label for that is sustainability,” Twigg said. “How do you get these programs to be sustainable so that we can back off and walk away, because they can do what needs to be done on their own?”

The fall class will work on a database and data analysis, and Twigg said the Bureau of Global Health Security and Deplomacy is eager to work with the VCU students.

“They are really relying on the product that we give to them,” said Twigg, who has conducted HIV/AIDS research for decades and hopes to collaborate with others on campus, such as the Humphrey Fellows and the newly formed School of Population Health.

“I’m looking forward to branching out in the scope of the people at VCU that we call on to talk with the students and guide us as we do this work,” Twigg said.

The experiential learning of Diplomacy Labs projects has the added benefit of affecting change for others, not just students, in meaningful ways. Singh, the pre-law student from this past fall’s Papua New Guinea work, said the project – including the chance to attend the Diplomacy Lab Fair – opened her eyes to opportunities she never thought of, such as possibly joining the State Department. But the most rewarding part is the real-world impact on others.

“I can say my project has allowed for another country to gain independence,” Singh said. “It’s a huge thing to say.”