Task Force Program Goes Silver

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Nancy Joseph 07/01/2008 July 2008 Perspectives

The Jackson School of International Studies’ Task Force Program celebrated its 25th anniversary in style on March 14 with an event that brought alumni from as far as Europe and Asia.

The Task Force Program was created in 1983 as a capstone experience for international studies majors, providing an opportunity to use knowledge and skills gained in previous classes on real-world problems. Seven or eight task force sections are offered each winter, with about 15 to 17 students in each.

Topics have run the gamut from U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula to refugee and asylum policy. Students must research the topic extensively and, as a group, develop a policy position and set of recommendations, which they present to an outside evaluator through a 250- to 300-page report and an oral presentation. 

“By senior year, students can bring a lot of what they’ve learned in other classes and apply it to a real live policy challenge,” says Sara Curran, associate professor of international studies and chair of the Jackson School’s International Studies Program. “They discover that theories aren’t perfect—it’s a messy political world and the reality of making something happen is different than theory. But they also see that the analytical skills they’ve gained give them the capacity to make an effective argument.”

Alumni who participated in Professor Herbert Ellison's 1995 task force, "Russia and the Near Abroad," toasted Ellison during the 25th anniversary event.

Evaluators are an important part of the task force experience. Especially, says Curran, since the UW is so far from Washington, D.C. Most evaluators are experts in the field; some are well-known nationally. They review the students’ written report before attending the oral presentation, and they are encouraged to ask tough questions about the students’ policy recommendations, just as they would if the students were on their own staff.

“The students never forget that moment of trying to defend their work to someone who is well known and really knows the field,” says Curran. “It is a moment seared in their minds.”

Perhaps that is why so many alumni returned to campus for the 25th anniversary event, with nearly 400 people in attendance. Former Washington Governor Gary Locke served as keynote speaker; Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna (‘85) served as emcee.

“The Task Force experience was a turning point in my decision to pursue a career in the national security arena,” says Linda Staheli (‘83). “I was exposed to the complexity of the issues and was encouraged to pursue work in this area. I have had a fascinating career working on national security and international science policy for the past 25 years.”

The Task Force event kicked off a year of gatherings that will culminate with a centennial gala celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Jackson School in 2009. 

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