SIA students embrace experiential learning during international crisis simulation

Colonel Kelly Ivanoff at USAWC simulation
Colonel Kelly Ivanoff, chairman of the Fellows Program at the U.S. Army War College, speaks to students about the goals of the simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – For 48 hours, Kaimyn Paszko set aside her role as a graduate student in the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA) and stepped into an unexpected position—as head of the Chinese delegation handling crisis negotiations with six other nations at a peace conference in Jakarta, Indonesia. The core of the crisis was a territorial dispute within the South China Sea, with competing claims from China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, United States, and Vietnam.

The crisis, however, was a simulation—no actual threats of war or sanctions echoed in the halls of the Lewis Katz Building, where the event took place. But the skills and experience gained by first-year SIA students, who all participated as diplomats of the seven countries, were very real.

“All of us walked away feeling like we learned a lot,” Paszko said.

SIA Professor and former two-time U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett coordinates the annual simulation in conjunction with his course on the foundations of diplomacy and international relations theory. Each year, Jett brings in a distinguished diplomat to act as the U.N. Secretary General; this year, retired U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shields filled that role. Shields served as the ambassador to Brunei from 2011 to 2014 as part of his long and impressive career as a diplomat in the Indo-Pacific region. The school also hosts the U.S. Army War College (USAWC), which manages the details of the simulation in the form of its International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE). Their combined efforts provide first-year students in the Master of International Affairs program with first-hand experience in international diplomacy and a greater understanding of the complexities involved in negotiating a resolution to a regional crisis.

“The main objective of this type of experiential form of education is to help the students understand the realities, the responsibilities, of representing a nation, in this case as diplomats from seven different nations,” said Ritchie Dion, strategic communication operations specialist with USAWC and the creator of the ISCNE simulation. “The exercise helps bring to life what they have studied in the classroom and helps make it real for them, oft times in a very personal way.”

Each delegation was tasked with representing the official position and preferred outcomes of its nation, and students worked together with team members to determine what strategies to employ to achieve those objectives. China, for example, claimed ownership over nearly the entire South China Sea as its “indisputable right,” with unconstrained access to its natural resources and transportation routes. As this was the de facto situation at the start of the peace conference, the Chinese delegation had a clear objective: preserve the status quo. To accomplish this goal, Paszko and her team developed a set of tactics that included rejecting multi-lateral meetings, causing chaos and disruption among the other delegations, and wasting as much time as possible during negotiations.

Kaimyn Paszko and other members of the Chinese delegationKaimyn Paszko (far right) and fellow members of the Chinese delegation outside the Lewis Katz Building. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

Vietnam and the Philippines likewise claimed ownership over parts of the sea, while the other nations involved in the simulation had various political and strategic interests in the region.

Japan, for example, played the role of a neutral party hoping to bring all sides together and find a middle-ground solution. SIA student Dzorlali Agbanu, who was head of communications for the Japanese delegation, said that, although they could not get China on board, his team was able to take positive steps toward their goals. It’s a good lesson to learn—although politics can be a zero-sum game, the outcomes of diplomacy are often complicated and incomplete.

“It gave me a good perspective of what can really happen in the outside world,” Agbanu said.

Colonel Kelly Ivanoff, chairman of the Fellows Program at USAWC and one of the leaders of this year’s simulation, said this was the primary goal—to teach students useful, transferable skills.

“Students are challenged to employ skills required of professionals in the foreign service, international affairs, and policy making and implementation communities,” Ivanoff said. “Skills such as regional situation analysis, negotiating techniques, strategic thinking, organizational leadership, planning and evaluation, decision making, team building, and time management are required of participating teams in order to ‘compete’ and achieve desired game objectives.”

Daniel Shield, Hari Osofsky, Ritchie Dion, and Kelly IvanoffFrom left to right: Amb. Daniel Shields, SIA and Penn State Law Dean Hari M. Osofsky, Ritchie Dion, and Col. Kelly Ivanoff at the USAWC simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel

In addition to skills related to the field of international affairs, students gained valuable experience that will help them in any career. Paszko, the head of the Chinese delegation, said that building these kinds of skills—including how to conduct yourself in an official meeting, how to think on your feet, developing effective communication strategies, and working together as a team—was among the most important outcomes of the simulation.

The students’ experiences reflected the advice of USAWC representatives Ivanoff and Dion, who encouraged them to view the event as an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

“They are given the opportunity, within reasonable bounds, to bring as much of their own intellectual weight to the exercise process, and they achieve as much, if not more, as they put into it, both individually and as a group,” Dion said. “If the exercise leaves a long-lasting impression on them, it will be as much from their own efforts as from anything else. In that way it is most impactful on their future selves.

SIA student Jordan GrandyFirst-year SIA student Jordan Grandy spoke as part of the Indonesian delegation at the USAWC simulation. IMAGE: Andrew Gabriel