MASH, a relatively new Harris Student Organization, is working to include the military perspective in public policy. A two-day crisis negotiation exercise was a significant step.

For two hectic days in January, Nancy R. Smith, MPP Class of 2023, directed and demonstrated the innovative approach that Military Affiliated Students of Harris (MASH) uses to bring the valuable perspective of those students into the public policy arena.

Nancy Smith
Nancy Smith, MPP Class of 2023

The setting was the university’s first International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE), an immersive learning experience in which teams of students representing diplomats from seven countries navigated their way through a crisis in the South China Sea. The Army War College, which offers these exercises annually at campuses across the country, presented the material and helped coordinate the two-day event at the Keller Center.

“There’s a need for more experiential learning at Harris,” said Smith, an active-duty U.S. Navy lieutenant assigned to graduate school. As examples, she noted the Harris Policy Labs and the Institute of Politics. “When we heard about ISCNE, we thought, ‘There are some people here who grew up participating in Model United Nations who would be very excited about this.’ So, we just ran with it.”

Organizers expected about 30 student participants. A total of 63 attended. Encouraged by the turnout, Smith is planning to make the exercise an annual event and invite students from other Chicago-area universities to participate.

Feeling the impact of policy

Zackariah Crahen, MPP '22

Founded by Zackariah Crahen, MPP’22, MASH supports and strengthens the military-affiliated community at Harris. It presents quarterly town halls for members and the annual MASH Bash, a combination block party and fundraiser for veterans affected by the criminal justice system in Chicago.

In addition to building community, MASH enhances Harris’s overall familiarity with veterans, and issues related to them, and elevates veterans’ voices in public policy. Also, MASH always looks to promote Harris as “the place to go for veterans,” Smith said. That promotional work includes helping prospective applicants gain admission to Harris.

MASH also coordinates with related organizations, including the Office for Military Affiliated Communities(OMAC), on presenting events on Veterans Day and during Black History Month. In April, MASH, OMAC and Women in Public Policy will host a speech by U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, Commander of U.S. Transportation Command.

“Military-affiliated personnel often feel the very direct impact of foreign and defense policy or social policy here in the U.S.,” Smith said during a break at ISCNE. “Because we are directly impacted in these ways, I think it’s really important that we’re part of these policy spaces.”

The crisis negotiations exercise centered on longstanding, conflicting claims that several countries along the strategically important South China Sea make on those waters. Each country’s delegation sought a general goal of negotiating “an advantageous solution” to the crisis while pursuing confidential objectives.

John Burrows
Senior Lecturer John Burrows

Monitored by Harris Senior Lecturer John Burrows playing the role of a United Nations Special Representative, groups representing China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, and the U.S. undertook 10 hours of fast-paced team meetings and negotiations over two days. Mentors also were assigned to each delegation.

A complete resolution was not expected. Most important were strengthening leadership and negotiating skills, strategic thinking, team building, time management, evaluation, and refinement. Developing planning and execution skills also were priorities.

The Army War College launched ISCNE in 2003 at Georgetown University to help include military perspectives in peace-preserving diplomacy and policy making and to enhance civil-military and academic-military relationships, Col. Mike Stinchfield of the Army War College said on the opening day of the exercise. The College has developed similar crisis exercises for eight regions, including the Arctic, Cyprus, Jammu-Kashmir, Korea, and Sudan, among others.

“We really have to think about the importance of diplomacy and working with each other,” Stinchfield said during opening comments of the exercise. “So, we are really the not-War College.”

Terrell Odom, Director of UChicago’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, came up with the idea of bringing ISCNE to campus. Other partners included the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts, the Graduate Council, and DT Institute.

Harris administrators brought ISCNE to engage alumni and students in real-world skills, build on Harris’s growing reputation as a leader in global conflict resolution, and develop a valuable partnership with the Army War College.

“Having MASH here is a real benefit as well,” Stinchfield said, “because it has a lot of former members of the military in it but also a lot of people who have nothing to do with the military.”

That mix of views is “a natural fit” for the multiple perspectives included in and important for the exercise.

A distinctly Harris experience

The exercise attracted public policy students unaffiliated with the military, including Amar Shah, MPP Class of 2023, who said ISCNE appealed to his study interests in conflict management and international development and negotiations. He also is friends with Smith and other MASH members and is the head teaching assistant for Burrows.

Amar Shah '23
Amar Shah, MPP Class of 2023

“Temperament-wise, I find a lot of kinship with people who have done military service,” Shah said. “Everything just clicked together to participate in this event where I have faculty who I know, friends, and an interest. I just thought this would be really fun.”

The exercise was very well run, said Shah, who was head of the Philippines delegation. Participants were prepared and took the exercise seriously. For him, the most meaningful experience was managing a team of seven people from different backgrounds.

“I felt as if this experience was one of those that I’ll remember from my time at Harris that I couldn’t have gotten elsewhere,” Shah said. “It makes a difference coming specifically to the University of Chicago to learn what I’m doing as opposed to picking up textbooks and trying to learn this all from that.”

Megan Sanders, MPP Class of 2024

Megan Sanders, MPP Class of 2024 and lead delegate for Vietnam, was enthusiastic about interacting with people from many different backgrounds and learning from mentors with real-world experience; her team’s mentor worked with USAID and the U.S. State Department for years.

Like Shah, Sanders, is not a member of MASH.

“It was a really good, out-of-classroom experience,” she said, noting that the real-world environment deepened her understanding of policy. “We talk a lot about big theories. It was fun to actually put them to the test and learn from our mistakes. These are the things you’re not going to get when you’re writing a paper or running a statistical regression.”

She said she hopes more women participate in future ISCNEs and that more time is allowed for informal networking.

Cookie facilitator

Billy Heller '23
Billy Heller, MPP Class of 2023

When Crahen founded MASH in 2020, he said the organization’s most important goal might be “to get more veterans engaged in the field of public policy.”

Billy Heller, MPP Class of 2023, was the personification of that objective.

An eight-year U.S. Army veteran, Heller is a MASH member and led the Japan delegation at ISCNE. He said he initially hesitated to attend the exercise. He’s participated in similar exercises in the Army and wanted to avoid taking a slot from a student who was excited about ISCNE.

Smith and others in MASH persuaded Heller, he said, by telling him he could serve as more of a facilitator and encourage others on the team to lead. Heller embraced the role, bringing cookies for his team the first day; donuts on the second.

“It was just so rewarding, seeing everybody from all the teams just step up, take charge, and really make it a rewarding experience,” he said. “Structurally, I don’t think I would have changed anything.”

He liked the fast pace and enjoyed thinking from Japan’s perspective while dealing with a U.S. delegation comprised of non-American students.

And he’s glad MASH is here for him.

“It’s just a phenomenal group of people who are very inclusive and welcoming of all military backgrounds, of all shapes and sizes,” Heller said. Simply tossing around military acronyms without having to explain them has brought a level of relaxation for him.

“Being able to be around people who know what your life has been like to a certain extent has been wonderful,” Heller said.