Friday, March 8, 2013

Student Spotlight: Yaniv Barzilai

For today’s installment of our Student Spotlight Series, we have interviewed Yaniv Barzilai, a second-year M.A. concentrating in Strategic Studies.  Yaniv is a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow, and he received his B.A. in Peace, War, and Defense from the University of North Carolina in 2011. 
As a Pickering Fellow, you’ll be joining the Foreign Service after graduation.  What are some of the practical skills you’ve learned at SAIS that will help you in your career?
One of the most important skills that I have learned at SAIS is how to approach complex problems in a systematic and strategic manner. Asking the right questions, scrutinizing historical precedents, considering the second- and third-order consequences, and evaluating alternatives are essential to the process of policy formulation and implementation but do not always occur naturally. SAIS has also helped me improve upon my time management and prioritization skills. Last semester I was taking a full course load, working 20 hours per week at the State Department, and putting the finishing touches on my book on Afghanistan. It was the first time in my life that I could not complete everything on my to-do list. The reality of the Foreign Service and many other professions is that the amount of work to be done far exceeds the time available to complete it. Learning how to survive and thrive in that sort of environment is necessary to succeeding in the fast-paced, complex world of foreign policy and national security.
Doing a summer internship is an important component to the Pickering fellowship.  Can you tell us about your summer internship?
Last summer I was an intern in the Somalia Unit of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. I worked with a small group of diplomats under U.S. Special Representative for Somalia Ambassador Jim Swan during a critical time in Somalia’s history. My job was to track the military events in Somalia and report on the state of the offensive against al-Shabaab. Every day I made calls to military and political leaders in Somalia to report on the latest events. I coordinated and developed plans to expand U.S. Anti-Terrorism Assistance programs to train Somali government officials on critical security capabilities. I even had the opportunity to draft a cable in response to a request by the White House for analysis on a particular subject that was subsequently discussed at National Security Council meetings. My time in the Somali Affairs Unit culminated with a trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kenya, where I was the site officer for the Secretary’s meeting with Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. I traveled often in my free time and finished my summer in East Africa with a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.
You have a book coming out soon.  Congratulations!  How has your time at SAIS contributed to this particular project?
SAIS has played an important role in the process of writing a book on the first 100 days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. My book relies partially on interviews with U.S. officials at every level of the war effort, and I was fortunate to find a number of professors at SAIS who possessed experience in government during this time period. I had an in-depth interview with Professor John McLaughlin, who was the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency on September 11 and played a pivotal role in the war on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and around the world. Professor Bruce Riedel, who has been a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents, has been a great mentor and generously agreed to write the foreword for my book. Other SAIS professors have provided informal help, such as Ambassador Eric Edelman, who was Vice President Cheney’s National Security Advisor, and Professor Walter Andersen, who was the chief of the South Asia Division at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Being in DC was also a distinct advantage and provided me with access to a number of other policymakers. 
You recently led a student trip to the US Army Special Operations Command.  How did this extracurricular activity complement your studies at SAIS?
Our recent trip to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) was a great opportunity to gain insight into the Army’s special operations capabilities. USASOC is not only home to the Green Berets but maintains extensive capabilities in all aspects of irregular warfare. We received briefings from subordinate organizations responsible for psychological operations, civil affairs, aviation, and the training of all Special Forces. We also met with a SAIS alumnus and a few of his colleagues from the 82nd Airborne. Since the U.S. Special Forces share the same organizational predecessors as the CIA, the trip complemented a broad array of classes focusing on intelligence or the military. From designing a covert operation to producing a national intelligence estimate to studying counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the USASOC trip enhanced my experience in the classroom by providing me with a practical understanding of the unique capabilities of our Special Forces.
What has been your favorite class so far, and why?
My favorite class at SAIS has been America’s Wartime Diplomacy: the Politics of Coalition Maintenance and Alliance Management. Taught by veteran diplomat Ambassador Eric Edelman, the class examined the implications of Churchill’s adage that “the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is trying to fight one without them.” Ambassador Edelman’s lectures were commensurate to opening an encyclopedia on the day’s topic. The workload was heavy, but I found myself learning more from my peers and our discussions than any other class I have taken. Ambassador Edelman challenged us to reach a new level of understanding and critical analysis, and the class as a whole rose to that challenge. This class not only taught me about wartime diplomacy and coalition warfare but also provided me with a solid foundation of diplomatic history since World War I.
Yaniv’s book, 102 Days of War: How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001, is slated to be published this year by Potomac Books.  For more information about Yaniv’s book, please click here.
Thanks for reading!
— Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions
To read previous entries in our Student Spotlight series, please click here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Student Spotlight: Anne Gilman

For today’s installation of the Student Spotlight series, we’ve interviewed Anne Gilman, a first-year M.A. student concentrating in Southeast Asia Studies. Anne graduated from University of Southern California in 2010 with a BA in political science, and prior to coming to SAIS worked as a communications associate in Hong Kong.

You’re studying Burmese language at SAIS. What did you find appealing about the SAIS language program?
First of all, that SAIS even offers Burmese. SAIS is one of the few schools in the country where one can study Burmese. The novice class has 8 students and the intermediate 2 students. Our Burmese teacher is fantastic, and also teaches at the Foreign Service Institute. He has invited us to cultural events at the Burmese Buddhist Monastery near Washington D.C. and the class went to a Burmese restaurant together to try the food. It is a very supportive program, and the teacher and school go above and beyond to put the students in a position to succeed with the language - from sending us sound files so we can hear the vocabulary, to helping sponsor a language intensive over the winter break.
Can you tell us about the Burmese language study trip you took during the winter break?
Six students in total went on the trip, 4 novice and 2 intermediate students. The novice students studied with 2 different teachers for 5 hours a day, 4 days a week, for 3 weeks in Yangon, Myanmar. We studied with one teacher named Daw Phyu Phyu Win and also Ko Htoo Htoo who is the tutor for the diplomats at the US Embassy in Yangon. We stayed in apartments of expats who are working in Yangon. We progressed as much as we would in a semester in Washington D.C. in just three weeks and we really took advantage of the opportunity to focus our attention purely on the language. It was a great feeling to utilize the vocabulary and grammar we had been studying all semester - and realized, that hey it worked! We could bargain in the markets, direct taxis, order in the restaurants, and make a few friends while we were at it.

Some students traveled around the country on the weekends, to Bagan, Bago, and Nay Pyi Taw (the capital), and also conducted independent research. I conducted a series of interviews investigating the effects that international business can have on the dual economic and political transition in Myanmar, and to what extent economic diplomacy would be a viable channel to pursue U.S. interests int he country. We were very grateful for a grant from the Southeast Asia Studies which enabled the learning experience. It has really refreshed my motivation and given me a renewed energy to vigorously pursue my Burmese studies this semester.
As a Student Government Association officer, you’re very involved in student life at SAIS. How does the student life aspect compliment the academics and professional preparation at SAIS?
I was fortunate to be elected one of the First Year Representatives for the Student Government Association in the fall and I have really enjoyed being the link between the student body and administration (in fact, I just submitted my video to run for President next year!). It has been amazing to experience how responsive the administration is to student suggestions and ideas, and the ability that we have on the SGA to support student initiatives and implement student ideas.

Student life is the perfect compliment to the academic and professional preparation at SAIS because every time I am doing research for a paper or project, or exploring what industry I want to pursue a career in, there is a great chance that one of my peers is specializing in the area I am researching, or has worked in the profession I am considering. For example, I have a presentation coming up on Thai-Myanmar relations, so I plan on speaking with my classmate who is in the Thai foreign ministry, and a teacher who was a former foreign service officer for Myanmar. Being a part of the Student Government Association has given me the opportunity to meet a wide range of classmates that I might not have gotten to know otherwise.
What has been your favorite class so far, and why?
This is a hard one, because even though it is just my second semester, there have been so many great classes!! I think I’ll have to go with the International Relations of Asia - the Policy Process - by Professor Karl Jackson. Our task as a class was to come up with policy recommendations for President Obama for US Foreign Policy towards Myanmar for the next 5 years. We were each assigned a topic area ( I was civil society and political movements) and encouraged to go out in the DC community and speak with authoritative people on the subject. Individually we came up with an analysis of the current framework and policy recommendations, and then through a few “policy-making” sessions, combined them into one comprehensive document. While the class may seem like it was about Myanmar, it really was about experiencing the policy process and it gave me an appreciation for how difficult it truly is to be a policy maker. Maybe it is from his personal experience in the White House, but there is something special about the atmosphere that Prof. Jackson creates that enabled our class to truly feel like policy makers.
What are you planning on pursuing professionally after graduation? What are some of the specific skills you’ve learned that will help you in your career?
After graduation, I plan to pursue a position in business development for a multinational company in the private sector in Southeast Asia. Some day down the line I plan to apply that experience as a professor of International Business. I’ve gained an unbelievable amount of regional knowledge that will prepare me for my career and I am starting to explore the nexus of international business and public policy, which I believe will be an asset in business development in Southeast Asia. I’m further developing relevant skills in the Management Challenges in Emerging Markets Practicum led from Frontier Strategy Group at SAIS that is giving me the framework to identify trends, and potential disruptors across industries and regions.
And this coming summer, I have accepted an offer with the Economic Department of the US Embassy in Bangkok, where I will be working for two SAIS graduates!
Thanks for reading!

— Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions

To read previous entries in our Student Spotlight series, please click here.