SIA students dive into research and internships that highlight careers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) faculty place an emphasis on experiential learning that allows students to work as project associates and in other positions that help them prepare for their ideal jobs after graduation.

Master of International Affairs students conduct research, write, edit, assist with projects, and assist with courses. Recent student-supported research projects have tackled issues ranging from nonviolent political protest to macroeconomic instability.

SIA currently has more than 30 student workers and more than a dozen student part-time jobs posted, which staff and faculty recruit for throughout the academic year. These experiential learning opportunities and required internships provide international affairs students with ample exposure to potential employers, including those in Washington D.C., and throughout government, but also a variety of think tanks and non-governmental offices.

“The School of International Affairs is a small program with a great sense of community and strong alumni network,” said Dr. Dennis Jett, SIA’s longest-tenured professor and two-time former U.S. ambassador, who has taught every student in the school’s history.

“We emphasize professional development - the acquisition of workplace skills instead of just preparation for more academic study - and experiential learning, such as our annual simulation with the Army War College, which is one of the most popular events of the SIA experience,” he said.

Passion of alumni and students fuel research into nonviolent activism

Dr. Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature and director for the Center for Global Studies, is more than two years into research that examines the social justice issue of dilemma actions. With little research available to differentiate this specific type of tactic from existing studies of nonviolent campaigns, McClennen and her research partner, Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, set students and alumni to work.

Students like Kaitlin Lovejoy, a second-year MIA student with a concentration in dispute resolution, have combed through scores of potential instances of dilemma actions and cataloged their data. McClennen and Popovic’s preliminary study of 44 dilemma actions was published in 2020 by Cornell University Press and the team is currently working on an expanded dataset that now includes more than 300 examples of dilemma actions.

“I believe that the research we are doing will set a new standard for activists who are eager to create more effective nonviolent protests,” Lovejoy said. “My research with Dr. McClennen has deepened my understanding of protest movements around the world and broadened my career aspirations, especially as it relates to nonviolent protests, which I never considered as an option coming into SIA.”

McClennen said she and everyone on the project have been thrilled to discover that the data shows a high percentage of dilemma actions lead to direct positive change in the targeted jurisdictions, with outcomes ranging from regime change to relaxing of the use of force against protesters.

“Students are doing research on nonviolent tactics, which requires using a range of research skills, but they are usually doing this research in more than one language, which allows them to develop their language skills,” McClennen said.

“They also have to write, they have to exercise judgment,” she added. “They have to be part of this massive team, have follow-through, and hone their professionalism.”

Research assistants key on analyses for peer review

Dr. Johannes W. Fedderke, professor of international affairs and African studies, said research assistants were key in finishing a recent project on quantitative early warning systems for macroeconomic instability.

The students’ work resulted in two working papers that are now under journal review. They’ve since graduated and returned to their home countries – Anushka Thachil, who is now with an NGO in India, and Wei-Ting Yang, now with the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Student assistance is crucial on research projects such as the one we recently concluded about the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) that identified steady rate growth and inflation that led to supply and demand shocks to the economy,” Fedderke said. “This resulted in two SARB working papers now under journal review.”

Additionally, Fedderke’s research assistants are helping to complete two papers on hedonic pricing of artworks and rates of return in the global art market.

“I believe my training in professional writing and critical thinking will become a treasure for my current work,” said Tinghua Chen, a former research assistant of Fedderke’s who graduated from the MIA program in 2020 with a concentration in econometric and biostatistics.

“I am a statistician at the Food and Drug Administration, where we will do a lot of statistical reviews and write up the statistical report, so those experiences in the MIA program will help me a lot in this job,” she said.