Last semester, the first class of seniors in the newly created Global Affairs major completed their senior capstone projects, a hallmark of the major that students ultimately gave mixed reviews.
Students in the class of 2013 — the first to graduate from the Global Affairs program — finished projects designed to serve as a bridge between students’ academic work and real-world policy experience, a theme emphasized throughout the major. The capstone projects, which take the place of the senior essay or project requirements typical of other majors, were executed for clients including the World Bank, the U.S. Treasury and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Clients and faculty interviewed said they were pleased with the results of the project, though students said experiences varied across the different capstone groups.
“We sought out projects with a strong research component that would feel comfortable to the students and also give them an opportunity to apply the academic skills they have developed at Yale to real-world policy challenges,” Director of Undergraduate Studies Sean Smith said. “One of the comments we heard more than once from clients was how impressed they were with the depth of analysis that translated into specific policy recommendations.”
At the end of their junior years, students in the major ranked their preference for the six capstones projects, which were developed by Smith and the clients. Eight to 10 students were selected to collaborate on each project under the guidance of two faculty members with expertise in the subject matter. Though three projects focused on themes in the major’s international security track and three emphasized concepts in the international development track, students could choose any of the six regardless of their concentration. Smith said all students were placed in one of their top two choices.
Smith said organizing the first round of capstones was challenging because most organizations had not worked with students in an academic setting in the past, and because he wanted the projects to be substantial for the students as well as useful for the organizations. Despite these difficulties, Smith said, clients trusted the students on serious projects such as ones involving policy recommendations for global cybersecurity and presentations on the impact of economic sanctions on terrorism.
Jennifer Fowler, a senior adviser to the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, said the Treasury maintained a constant line of communication with its capstone group throughout the project and was impressed by the final result.
“I think we were all blown away with the quality of work the students did,” Fowler said. “They brought really fresh perspectives to things we see every day, which was really exciting for us.”
Eric Berman GRD ’90, the managing director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, which collaborated with students on one of the capstone projects, said the quality of students’ work led his organization to funnel additional resources into rigorously reviewing the final project so that it could be made public in a few months.
Smith said several of the clients have approached him already about being involved in future capstone projects.
All six global affairs majors interviewed said they thought students’ experiences varied depending on which capstone they were involved with.
Rey-Hanna Vakili ’13, who participated in the Treasury Department capstone, said her own experience was very positive, though it was not exactly what she expected going in.
“I definitely got the sense that we were guinea pigs, because at the beginning a lot of it was self-directed,” Vakili said. “But it worked out very well, and I’m very happy with the final product”
Vakili said her group involved a constant stream of communication between the clients, professors and students, but added that other capstone groups did not have the same relationship with their clients and felt “aimless” while working on the project.
Patrick Ouziel ’13, who participated in the World Bank capstone group, said he felt the instructions for his group’s project were vague and the scope of the project was too large for unspecialized undergraduate students.
“I think we learned a lot in the end, but I think some people were disappointed,” Ouziel said. “We wanted the project to be helpful to the World Bank, and I don’t think we felt that by the end of the semester.”
Daniel Pitcairn ’13 said his capstone project on cybersecurity presented different challenges than a written thesis because working collaboratively required different skills from working independently. Pitcairn said he hoped the individual capstones in future semesters would better interact with one another — such as a session when the groups come together to present their final projects — and that he approached Smith with this suggestion.
Smith said he is carefully considering the evaluations of students and professors as the program moves into its second year. Like Vakili, Smith said he thought students benefited from meeting their clients face to face and wants to make this opportunity available to all capstone projects in the future.
Roughly 50 students are accepted to the Global Affairs major each year.