As a Virginia Tech student, Maura McDonough initially dreamed of a fulfilling career in politics. But thanks to a meaningful and enriching stint in the nation’s capital as a participant in the Washington, D.C., Semester in Global Exchange (WSGE), her future took a new and exciting direction in national security.

The WSGE is a program offered by the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) at its Arlington, Virginia, campus and is open to all sophomores, juniors, and seniors of any major to spend a semester in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. With a goal of immersing students in the policymaking industry and process, program participants explore a wealth of political and cultural opportunities available to them on a national scale.

“I still think it’s one of the best experiences that I’ve had, and I still talk about it today,” said McDonough, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in 2019 with a degree in political science. “My time in the program helped me secure one of my internships at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a public policy research institute. And it helped me start my career as well.”

During WSGE, students participate in a 15-credit-hour program where they take courses on international policy, receive on-the-job experience through an internship in a variety of fields, and participate in a group project called Diplomacy Lab.

In Diplomacy Lab, students participate in a semester-long intensive policy simulation in which the U.S. State Department tasks partnering educational institutions with developing a policy pitch on a key issue of international affairs.

Diplomacy Lab runs as a partnership between SPIA and the Department of Political Science, with Yannis Stivachtis, a political science professor who directs the International Studies Program, offering the program in Blacksburg. The project builds to a presentation of a completed policy proposal for State Department foreign and civil staff.

Ambassador Joyce Barr meets with Washington Semester students
Former assistant secretary of state ambassador Joyce Bar (center) meets with Diplomacy Lab participants in the 2019 Washington Semester in Global Exchange program cohort. Photo courtesy of Ariel Ahram.

Projects such as Diplomacy Lab are designed to help students develop a wide variety of transferable skills such as public speaking, critical thinking, and teamwork. Students also learn to write more succinctly, a critical skill that program alumni like McDonough can bring back to their classes when they finish the program.

In addition to the Diplomacy Lab courses, WSGE students receive advising from policy professionals and experts working in the Washington, D.C., area. One of the most notable influencers of the program is SPIA professor of practice and former assistant secretary of state ambassador Joyce Barr, who passes along her expertise to students through tutoring and sometimes helps arrange meetings between U.S. diplomats and program participants. 

“Through her mentoring, Joyce Barr has been an incredible resource for our program,” said Joel Peters, a SPIA professor of government and international affairs and the original director of the WSGE. “She has advised our students on how to write policy papers and to relate their ideas to people in the policy field.”

The Washington Semesters have been a part of the Virginia Tech landscape for over two decades. The program began as a summer-long experience that focused on leadership and governance. About five years ago, SPIA faculty based in the Washington, D.C., area decided to add an additional semester-long program focusing on international affairs. The new program in global engagement complemented the international studies major offered by the political science department in Blacksburg.

WSGE has helped students like McDonough start and build successful careers. McDonough, who started the program learning about foreign affairs as an intern on Capitol Hill with Senator Mark Warner, was able to use her research and analytical skills to land a position as an intelligence analyst after graduating. She eventually moved into a management consulting position in the defense sector at her current employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, an information technology consulting company.

“If students wholeheartedly engage in the program’s curriculum in order to build on the core skill sets,” McDonough said, “the knowledge and experience gained will serve them beneficially in the long term.”

In the future, WSGE leadership would like to provide meaningful opportunities for Virginia Tech alumni and professionals to get more involved with the program. The hope is that Hokies in the Washington, D.C., area with career experience in law and business would not only lend their expertise to advise program participants, but also mentor incoming juniors and seniors. 

“This is the prime time to be thinking about policy,” said Ariel Ahram, an associate professor and chair of the government and international affairs program in SPIA. As the current director of WSGE, he thinks hands-on learning opportunities for students in the Washington, D.C., region will only grow.

“There will be many changes following the election this year,” Ahram said, “and now is the time for students interested in a career in policy development to get their foot in the door.”

- Written by Jared Cole