A lone female border agent sits behind a plain folding table, an impatient expression plastered over an unwelcoming face. She wears a camouflage army-issued jacket, and tightly pinned hair under a matching hat. She is an imposing and intimidating figure to first-time deploying Forage Corps members, inducing anxiety and uncertainty in even the most veteran humanitarians. Standing between them and their mission of providing humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected people, she waits to examine their visas. One misstep, and it could all be over. Or at least, that’s what I hoped they thought of me as I imagined my own villainous theme music rising in volume as the first Forage Corps member walked hesitantly toward my security station.
I recently joined the Forage Center as a program specialist after having participated in the 2016 simulation and serving two years as a controller/evaluator (CE). As a CE, I acted as a mentor, posing strategic questions at certain times to induce critical thinking and answering their questions of “Are we doing this correctly?” with frustrating responses like, “What does your team think?” or “Do you think you are doing this correctly?” The simulation at La Roche College, held May 23-24, 2018, was the first one in which I got to play a character role.
As a former high school drama club president, I was very excited to be playing the crucial role of border guard, a character charged with interrogating the newly arrived humanitarians, collecting contraband items, and shocking the program participants into simulation. My goal was to challenge their answers, try to catch them in contradictions, and impress upon them the need to follow directions and think quickly on their feet without the comfort of a friendly face. To my somewhat selfish disappointment, the participants in this simulation responded to me so well that it was I who felt the need to think quickly in order to come up with new and more challenging questions for them. I asked them questions such as, “What are you doing in in our country? Who is paying you to be here? Why do you, a foreigner with no experience, think that you can help my people? What do you mean you have a military background? Why are you here to destabilize my country?”
Despite their expert navigation of my attempted trickery, it appeared that I did strike a certain amount of fear into the hearts of our participants. During our post-simulation debrief, I walked up with my regular friendly face and civilian attire and stood behind Forage Center president David J. Smith as he spoke to them. As I stood there, I noticed their eyes darting anxiously from him to me at various intervals. I did my best to convince them that indeed, I actually am a kind-hearted, smiley soul when I introduced myself at last. It took them several minutes to recalibrate their reactions to me, something that we discussed and deconstructed in our reflections.
In addition to playing the border agent, I served as the exercise director, who in this specific situation was mostly responsible for working with the volunteer actors and adjusting the roles as the simulation played out. In my previous roles with the Forage Center, I had limited interactions with our actors, but was impressed by their commitment to their characters and Oscar-worthy performances. Our role players this time around were no different. La Roche students and members of the Pittsburgh community showed up to help us create real-life, trauma-affected characters that tested the interpersonal and assessment skills of the Forage Corps humanitarians. Each volunteer responded with enthusiasm, flexibility, and commitment that made my job so easy I thought I was missing something. Their detailed descriptions of how each scenario unfolded were crucial to the continuation of the storyline, and it was a pleasure to connect individually with them before and after their roles. I also had some great fun cultivating strategic social media posts that were both punny and informational to careful observers.
As I watch each new group of participants navigate their way through the exercise, I gain a deeper understanding of humanitarian work. The simulations allow participants to engage with complex situations in a low-stakes manner. The ability to practice maneuvering through politically tense environments, compassionately assess disaster-affected people, and understand how humanitarian principles are applied in the field is an incredibly unique and needed opportunity for veteran and hopeful humanitarians alike. The mistakes they make throughout the exercise are crucial learning points where they can critically reflect on their actions, intentions, reactions, interpersonal dynamics, and biases while learning from each other’s perspectives and experiences.
Ultimately, I hope the participants come to recognize that flexible interpersonal skills underpin the success of any endeavored mission and that maintaining a person-centered attitude keeps you focused on your mission. I continue to be transformed by watching others grow through this simulated experience and emerge more aware and confident in their strengths.
Chelsea Cornwell is a program specialist with the Forage Center. She is graduate of the MSW program at the University of Connecticut and a graduate of the disaster resiliency leadership master’s program at Tulane University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.