Preparing Young People for Humanitarian Careers

The Forage Center  advances humanitarian education and training not only among professionals and college students, but also with secondary and high school students.  I’ve come to realize that young people are thinking about jobs and professional work earlier and earlier.   Even in elementary school, career days are not uncommon.  As such, those of us working to advance humanitarian, peacebuilding, human rights and related work need to be sharing about what this work looks like with youth.

Aid workers interviewing refugees at the Conflict Resolution Youth Summit

For the second year in a row, the Forage Center participated in George Mason University’s Conflict Resolution Youth Summit, which is being held this week.  My colleague at the Forage Center, Chelsea Cornwell,  and I yesterday worked with 40 students  in a 2-hour simulation replicating the experiences that refugees might have  being interviewed by aid workers.   We divided the students into two groups: aid workers and refugees.  Refugees were assigned specific roles as Syrians, and grouped together into three families and a group of unaccompanied young males.   The aid workers, working for the Forage Corps, where divided into four teams each assigned to interview the refugees on specific issues including education, housing needs, health and medical, and their travel experiences.

George Mason University Youth Summit participants


On Tuesday, we ran the same activity with a group of 20 students participating the World Affairs Council/Washington, DC Leadership Academy on International Affairs.  This program has been operating for many years.  I often participate but generally focus on careers.  This time with Chelsea, we looked at refugee experiences.

It is sometimes difficult for students to get into role.  So we spent time in both programs talking about the value of experiential learning and how role playing can be an important means to sensitizing an individual to another’s human experiences: the process of role playing can increase awareness of social problems and raise empathy with students.   Before students role play, we asked them to close their eyes and in an intentional and reflective way consider their role.  We also did the same at the end as a means to taking students out of the role.

World Affairs Council students

Debriefing is vital in these types of activities.  In fact, at times the debrief is longer than the activity itself.  In debriefing, we asked students to share what they learned, what they experienced, and even what the challenges where for them.   For the most part, students shared about their raised understanding of the plight of refugees and other migrants.  Some talked about their own personal experiences in their families as migrants and others talked about their desire to continue to work with refugees in some capacity.  Students – particularly the aid workers – discussed  the struggle between what refugees are asking for (food, water, medicine) and their job as interviewers in getting basic facts.  It is hard not to want to promise and maybe set unreasonable expectations for those you are serving.  For those of us working in the field, these emotions and reactions reflect what we see daily.

Chelsea Cornwell talking with World Affairs Council students

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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