Student think tank presents policy research to CIA

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April 22, 2011

2:37 AM

As Lindsay Hundley ’12 walked to the podium in front of 70 Washington D.C. policy officials from over 20 organizations Tuesday, her biggest concern was whether or not her folder would fit on the platform.

“The worst thing that happened was that I got up there and realized that my folder wasn’t going to fit on the podium,” Hundley said. “At that point, I was just like, I’m going to have to wing it. As soon as I got up there, I hit automatic mode and, from that point, it was just a matter of getting to the finish line.”

After months of preparation, Hundley and five other College of William and Mary upperclassmen fellows in the Project on International Peace and Security presented at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. PIPS is an undergraduate think tank that allows students to create and present their own policy initiatives in front of D.C. officials.

“PIPS is an undergraduate, security-focused think tank that tries to bridge the gap between the academic world and the policy world,” government professor and PIPS co-director Dennis Smith said. “They have to identify emerging security-related challenges, put together a policy brief on this and at the end of the year they present it to policy makers in D.C. at a conference.”

The program, founded by Smith and government professor Amy Oakes, allows undergraduates to gain firsthand experience working in public policy by creating and presenting their own policy ideas. Participants are responsible for delivering a policy brief and a presentation at an annual conference.

“They are working on original policy briefs,” Smith said. “The way the presentations work is that the students have seven minutes to convince an audience of policy makers that what they are arguing is important and that the additions that they are proposing are politically and economically viable.”

After working to create a policy in a year-long process, fellows are able to present their work in front of a large audience including members of the Brookings Institute, CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Deloitte Consulting and a host of other organizations.

“We focus it on one night to show folks in the policy community what our students can do,” Smith said. “These are six students, but they are representative of a whole slew of students on campus.”

The six fellows are selected from a competitive applicant pool of about 45 international relations, government and public policy majors. The application process begins over the summer and students are selected in early fall.

“You get an invitation to apply over the summer,” Hundley said. “Then, after all applications are submitted, six applicants are selected. After that, you dive right in.”

Most of the first semester is spent picking a research topic. After selecting a research topic, fellows are assigned an intern to work with during the spring semester as they finalize their policy briefs and presentations, working up to the big conference in April.

“As a PIPS intern, I was able to learn a lot about the policy world, as well as conduct lots of research and learn about contemporary issues,” Elsa Voytas ’13 said. “I didn’t have to face the pressure that the fellows feel because I didn’t actually have to present.”

Intern functions consist of creating a policy brief and perfecting fellow presentations. The policy briefs, while only five to eight pages in length, take months of research to complete.

“It seems like five to eight pages isn’t that much,” Hundley said. “It is probably the work of an honors thesis condensed into eight pages. I know for my project I probably read about 60 pages for every sentence [I wrote].”

The idea for PIPS came from a speaker’s interest in student papers while visiting the College of William and Mary. When US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry came to speak to Roni Mullen’s class on Afghanistan, he requested to see some student papers and take them back with him to Washington D.C.

“At the end of his talk, he was telling students there are multiple ways you can serve your country, for example he [said] you can serve with your ideas,” Smith said. “He looked through students’ papers and was really surprised by what he saw. He saw ideas that he wasn’t getting from his staff.”

From this meeting, Smith and Oakes decided that undergraduate ideas could be presented and utilized on a larger scale, through an annual conference and a year-long program working closely with selected fellows and interns.

“I just put two and two together and said why don’t we start up an undergraduate think tank,” Smith said. “It’s like a real job, it’s a real think tank.”

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