SIA students apply skills to real-world scenario during crisis simulation

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – There may be no way to replicate the drama and tension of being a diplomat working to resolve an international crisis, but for two days in November, students in the Penn State School of International Affairs—surrounded by former U.S. ambassadors and current U.S. Army War College officials—experience the next best thing.

Each year, SIA Professor and former two-time U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett coordinates an international crisis simulation as a component of his core course on the foundations of diplomacy and international relations theory. The U.S. Army War College (USAWC), located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, manages the details of the simulation in the form of its International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE), in which students are assigned roles as the diplomats of various nations and non-state actors involved in a real-world conflict.

"The simulation with the Army War College provides the best possible experience in dealing with a complex, diplomatic situation short of the real thing," Jett said.

Ambassador Dennis Jett addresses SIA students at the start of the 2019 annual international crisis simulation
Ambassador Dennis Jett addresses SIA students at the start of the 2019 annual international crisis simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

Colonel Chad Jagmin of the U.S. Army War College addresses SIA students during the 2019 international crisis simulation
Colonel Chad Jagmin of the U.S. Army War College addresses SIA students during the 2019 international crisis simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

Lieutenant Colonel Steven Hildebrand of the U.S. Army War College explains the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE) to SIA students
Lieutenant Colonel Steven Hildebrand of the U.S. Army War College explains the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE) to SIA students. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

This year’s exercise focused on the Kashmir crisis, with students divided into groups representing China, India, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States, as well as the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), representing the territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Each group was provided with specific goals, which they strove to achieve through intense negotiations over the course of the 48-hour simulation.

Ambassador Jett also invites a distinguished diplomat to act as the U.N. secretary general and provide students with additional insights into negotiation strategy and tactics. In recent years, special guests for the simulation have included former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering, Robin Raphel, and Daniel Shields.

This year’s special guest was Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., who has served as ambassador to Zimbabwe (2016-2018), the Philippines (2010-2013), and Bangladesh (2003-2005), among other leadership roles at the U.S. Department of State. Following a 34-year career in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Thomas retired in March 2018 with the rank of Career Minister. 

“As a seasoned Foreign Service Officer, I enjoyed addressing and observing the earnest Penn State SIA students demonstrate their academic and innovative skills during the AWC simulation,” Thomas said, “which tested their skills and perceptions in a successful effort that will better prepare them for the challenges they will face as global affairs practitioners.”

Ambassador Harry Thomas played the role of U.N. secretary general during the 2019 crisis simulation
Ambassador Harry Thomas played the role of U.N. secretary general during the 2019 crisis simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

SIA student Carla Sofia Campos listens and takes notes as U.S. Army War College officials explain the rules of the simulation
SIA student Carla Sofia Campos listens and takes notes as U.S. Army War College officials explain the rules of the simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

Prior to the simulation, Thomas also delivered a public lecture and discussion on the Kashmir crisis, which many SIA students attended—a great opportunity to gain more insight into Kashmir and the challenges of international diplomacy from one of the United States’ most experienced diplomats.

“Ambassador Thomas’ presence was really positive and gave the simulation an added sense of legitimacy,” said SIA student Neema Esfandi, who served as head communicator for the team representing India. “He’s done this in his career for a really long time and at a really high level.”

One thing students learned very quickly was that 48 hours is not nearly long enough to resolve an international crisis—especially one that has been ongoing for more than 70 years. In most cases, the time frame did not allow the students to accomplish many of the goals they identified on behalf of the countries they represented.

“I expected more concrete goals, more zero-sum,” Esfandi said. “But it became more about overcoming obstacles and challenges and navigating constraints.”

Ultimately, the simulation is not intended to resolve the crisis but rather represents a chance for students to develop real-world skills that will translate to their planned career paths.

SIA student Imane Guisse took on the role of head of delegation for the People's Democratic Party (PDP)
SIA student Imane Guissé took on the role of head of delegation for the People's Democratic Party (PDP). IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

“A lot of us want to work in negotiations and diplomacy as part of our careers,” added Imane Guissé, who took on the role of head of delegation for the PDP during the exercise and has focused her graduate studies on international security and the Middle East. “It’s a good reference point for where your skills really are.”

Specifically, Guissé pointed to the importance of precision in language, the need for patience, and balancing skepticism and trust during an intense negotiation.

“I really wanted to challenge myself, and being head of delegation gave me that opportunity,” she said.

Guissé was not alone in seizing a leadership role.

“It’s hard to not get really involved in the simulation,” said Bridget Reynolds, who acted as head of delegation for India and is considering a career in counterterrorism and intelligence. “The kind of students that SIA has are the kind that will want to be involved and take initiative.”

Regardless of their specific roles in the exercise, students embraced the hands-on approach to education.

“It’s like a test run to see whether you really want to be a diplomat,” said Mohammed Al Saif, who was head of delegation for Pakistan. “You’ve got the background and the knowledge, now it’s time to put it into practice.”

In fact, Al Saif and Reynolds both said that the promise of developing practical skills and experience—specifically, but not limited to, the annual crisis simulation—was what drew them to the Penn State School of International Affairs in the first place.

“The simulation was the one thing I was most looking forward to from the moment I submitted my application,” Al Saif said. “As well as the fact that so many SIA faculty have real-world experience.”

SIA student Mohammed Al Saif (center), head of delegation for Pakistan, flanked by teammates and fellow students Morgan Olivia John and Jason Winters
SIA student Mohammed Al Saif (center), head of delegation for Pakistan, flanked by teammates and fellow students Morgan Olivia John and Jason Winters. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

SIA student Bridget Reynolds addresses the crowd as head of delegation for India
SIA student Bridget Reynolds addresses the crowd as head of delegation for India. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

SIA alumna Sarah Fusco ('19) served as a mentor during the 2019 crisis simulation
SIA alumna Sarah Fusco ('19) served as a mentor during the 2019 crisis simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

SIA’s emphasis on applied learning and professional development, in addition to building critical analytical skills in the classroom, helps prepare students for a successful career. SIA graduates have secured positions as Foreign Service Officers and embassy personnel around the world, but the Army War College exercise benefits students regardless of their intended career field.

“As a recent grad, it’s easy to see that the simulation definitely prepared me for the interactions and situations I have encountered so far in my career,” said SIA alumna Sarah Fusco (’19), who works as a business development specialist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia. “The high-pressure environment and overall formality of the exercise gives an accurate picture of what a career in this field can look like.”

Ambassador Jett invited Fusco to return to University Park and serve as a mentor to current students during this year’s simulation.

“Going from a participant, to a facilitator, to a mentor, it was so hard to not jump in on the action,” Fusco said. “The simulation was by far one of my favorite activities I did as a student, so I was very honored I was asked to come back.”

Current students were just as thankful for the opportunity.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ to Ambassador Jett, Ambassador Thomas, and the U.S. Army War College for hosting this incredible event,” said Guissé. “Being able to dive in and put ourselves in these roles, we got to see how complicated the Kashmir issue is and how complex a real-world crisis can be.”

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