Academics & Research / Fall 2016

Annual simulation gives students hands-on experience leading humanitarian efforts

The International Humanitarian Crisis Simulation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies teaches graduate students in international relations, psychology and social work what it’s like to stay cool, calm and effective in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

The International Humanitarian Crisis Simulation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies teaches graduate students in international relations, psychology and social work what it’s like to stay cool, calm and effective in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

On the University of Denver campus, Memorial Day weekend 2016 was anything but a holiday.

The peace was broken that Sunday morning when a man — distraught and angry — started yelling that his daughter was lost.

Witness to his grief were roughly 40 people standing in four loosely formed groups near the Anna and John J. Sie International Relations Complex, home to DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Some were sitting. Many had sleeping bags. Most were visibly disturbed, even distraught.

But they weren’t. They were pretending. In fact, some of those gathered were actors, playing lost children, abused women and tired, hungry displaced persons — all the victims of a humanitarian crisis within the borders of their homeland.

Others played different roles. They were Red Cross workers, government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations — problem solvers one and all. While the victims were played by volunteer actors, the problem solvers were played by DU graduate students in international relations, psychology and social work. As they adopted their assigned roles, they learned what it’s like to stay cool, calm and effective in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

Everyone in the area that day — actors, students and others — was part of the Korbel School’s International Humanitarian Crisis Simulation. The annual exercise is the brainchild of two DU professors who thought it would be ideal training for students whose future professions may put them face to face with humans in dire need.

“It’s an opportunity for students to see how what they learn in theory in the classroom plays out in the field,” says Chen Reis, director of the Humanitarian Assistance Program at the Korbel School and one of the simulation’s co-creators and organizers. “We can’t send our students out into war zones, for obvious reasons. Nor is it really appropriate to do so while they’re being trained. But we can give them a sense of what their world will be like when they begin their professional lives.”

The simulation offers an experience that can’t be had elsewhere in North America, integrating humanitarian generalists and international disaster psychology specialists in one exercise, says co-creator and organizer Courtney Welton-Mitchell, an adjunct faculty member at the Korbel School. Other simulations sponsored by academic institutions typically focus on medical triage. This one concentrates exclusively on protection and psychosocial services.

“When I came here in 2011, I thought a simulation would be good for the students, and at about the same time, Courtney was thinking the same thing,” Reis says. The two were a perfect pair to parent such a production: Reis had taken part in developing simulations at the World Health Organization; and Welton-Mitchell has two decades of experience in domestic and international human services.

The inaugural humanitarian crisis simulation — a one-day event — took place in May 2012 on the lawn outside the Ammi Hyde Building. In that scenario, displaced people were seeking safety from fabricated civil unrest. Each year’s simulation is loosely based on events in Chad during the mid-2000s, when thousands of citizens became endangered from violence, but each year Reis and Welton-Mitchell add details based on feedback and research to create a more realistic, ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Over the years they’ve added an extra day, along with faster-changing and more-dangerous scenarios, such as cholera alerts, contaminated water supplies and cultural misunderstandings.

“This year we added more emphasis on the importance of partnering with local organizations,” Welton-Mitchell says, explaining that while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees exists to protect and support refugees, there is no similar agency mandate for internally displaced people. This makes partnering all the more important, she says.

Students also got media training, learning how to deal with reporters seeking confirmation of rumors. And they learned how to tap new technologies, such as mobile apps, to address problems and craft proposals.

Welton-Mitchell says the simulation helps students better understand humanitarianism in a truer context and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.

“Most students find the experience challenging but also rewarding,” she says. “Many feel more confident they can use the skills they learned.”

Hali Nurnberg (MA ’16), who graduated in June with a master’s degree in international disaster psychology, played an emergency mental-health coordinator who assessed the psychosocial needs of the internally displaced individuals in this year’s simulation.

“One woman we talked to told us that her village had been destroyed, her husband had been murdered, her child had been kidnapped, and that she was suicidal,” Nurnberg says. “We were able to connect her to a social support to keep her safe.”

Later in the simulation, Nurnberg and other students in her group wrote a proposal — based on their interactions with the displaced people — to fund the building of two schools and to support existing schools by training teachers. The schools would serve as community centers with after-school programs and safe spaces for women to gather.

“[The simulation] is built on my understanding of how my field interacts with those in other fields,” Nurnberg says. “I’ve always been a proponent of experiential learning — typically, experience stays with us longer than readings or lectures. There’s a big difference between reading about concepts and actually using them in the field. And you don’t learn how to work in a team of people, each with a different expertise, through theories and concepts.”

Damola Ladipo, an MA student in international development at the Korbel School, brought his experience in disaster behavioral health technical assistance to the exercise. He played a United Nations humanitarian affairs coordinator.

“The pressure the simulation puts on you physically and mentally propels you to succeed, not just for yourself, but for your team, and for the beneficiaries you’re trying to offer humanitarian assistance to,” Ladipo says.

Another student, Nikki Bernabe, who is studying sustainable development and global practice at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, played a gender-based violence specialist at the 2016 event. She says the simulation helped her learn how to use her skills and prepared her for an internship where she will help plan an international disaster and risk conference.

“It was an incredible opportunity. International humanitarian work affects many people, and it can be detrimental if it’s done poorly,” Bernabe says. “The simulation was a great way to put our skills to the test at a lower risk. I’m grateful I was part of it.”


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