For four days in June 2022, 10 graduate students deployed to the fictitious country of Costero and served as an advance team tasked with creating a humanitarian aid needs assessment. They were unaware their simulation would disrupt their sleep!
“There’s a security breach scheduled at 12:30 tonight,” reported Chelsea Cornwell, Exercise Director.
Hosted by Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc., (Forage Center) the experiential exercise reinforces the principles of humanitarian aid and crisis management in a live-action and ever-changing simulation.
“Bringing my own experience as a participant in 2016 helps me understand the emotional and mental needs participants face during simulation,” said Cornwell. “Once you meet Immigrations and Customs you’re transported to a world where you are constantly learning about this field, yourself, and how your own experiences affect your decision making, conversations, empathy, and security. This simulation makes humanitarians stronger by allowing them to confront all this and more in a safe and closed environment.”
Designed to test participants’ ability to apply humanitarian principles in unfamiliar contexts, students worked together to create a working plan for wildfires affecting Costero while accounting for the country’s political atmosphere.
“There was so much going on. So much new information coming at you at once. You have to stop and think, where do I start?” commented Josh Price, George Mason University graduate student and field exercise participant.
The exercise began with a collection of electronic devices. “It’s important participants be all-in during the simulation,” said Forage Center president David J. Smith. “We rely on technology for logistics and communications but in some deployments, connections are unstable. We build this into the simulation and strengthen our reliance on each other.”
The students’ first in-simulation interaction set the stage for what would be an intensive few days. Spending hours at the border with Costero Immigrations and Customs, the students quickly learned the simulation would not be a vacation.
“Proper documentation, understanding privacy and security limitations and concerns, and a deference to country officials are crucial to successful entry,” explains Cornwell. “We keep them at the border until they’ve met entry requirements, and maybe we give them a little attitude to really drive the point home.”
Once in Costero, situated on 40 acres in Western Maryland, students met with experienced humanitarians and educators to discuss strategies, ethics, negotiation techniques, and leadership skills. In between these sessions, students took meetings with government officials, non-governmental organization representatives, and Costeran residents seeking aid and partnerships.
Having received pre-deployment materials, the participants were aware of Costero’s history, geography, domestic and international geopolitics, and the disaster affecting the country’s residents. After navigating the complexities and nuances of logistics and aid constraints, while relating to and providing compassion and limited aid to the residents and stakeholders, students debriefed immediately following each role play session.
The debriefs expanded on knowledge they may have gained during their academic careers, provided additional opportunities for team building, and allowed for exchange of information. Collaboration within teams is vital, and providing hands-on experience without real-world repercussions can further solidify a participants’ future in the field.
“When we coordinated that last night, it was so good. We produced and learned so much together,” reported University of Massachusetts graduate student Jiedine Phanbuh.
Real-world challenges did present themselves throughout the simulation - from dropped calls and weak signals during virtual roleplay to rolling storms to mating frogs at the nearby pond - requiring agility and patience from the students.
“We had to press ourselves and we had to adjust,” said Price.
“Being resolute in their work while under imperfect situations is where some of the best learning occurs,” commented Smith. “The ability to collaborate, pivot, and make decisions on the ground using information available and known best practices is crucial to a successful deployment. This group of students showed such agility and growth throughout the simulation. It was fascinating to see their thought processes put into action.”
“This was such a unique empirical learning experience that exceeded my expectations in many ways; I felt like I was genuinely deployed to humanitarian aid work,” said George Mason University graduate student and participant, Omar Al Mashhadani. “There is no academic book that can ever teach what I have learned about humanitarian work during this experience. I can confidently say that participating in this exercise was the most magnificent experience in my study of conflict analysis and resolution,” Al Mashhadani continued.
The Forage Center sincerely thanks all those who supported and helped make the simulation successful: Brenda’s Pizza, Lowe’s, MoonShadow, Shop & Save, and Walmart; Suresh and Inge Choudhary; St. John’s Lutheran Church Meadow Mountain; onsite and virtual role players and special guests, including Rick Nidel, Interim Director, Ukraine Crisis Response, International Justice Mission (who talked with students from the Romanian/Ukrainian border); and Forage Center staff (themselves often Coastal Promise alumni). The Forage Center also acknowledges our training site was once the traditional home of the Massawomek and other Indigenous people; 10% of the net revenue from our programs held on this land are donated to Indigenous causes.
The 10 participating graduate students from George Mason University (Arlington, VA), American University (Washington, DC), and University of Massachusetts/Boston join over 500 U.S. and international undergraduate and graduate students who have participated in Forage Center exercises since the program began in 2000. Alumni have gone on to join various disaster relief and humanitarian aid organizations, government offices, and non-governmental organizations around the world.
For more information on future simulations, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Forage Center.