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Dec. 14, 2011
When a 6.5-magnitude earthquake devastated the country of Atlantica, which also was on the brink of civil war, it was up to 23 students at Northwest Missouri State University who formed a consortium of non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations to make sure Atlantica citizens got the assistance they needed.
The scenario was fictitious, but the skills the students developed throughout their principles of humanitarian aid course were real. Principles of humanitarian aid is a core course within Northwest’s growing comprehensive crisis response program.
Dr. Mark Corson, associate professor of geoscience, who recently returned to Northwest from a deployment to Iraq as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve's 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command and has a wealth of firsthand experience with humanitarian aid, teaches the course each fall.
“They have to learn how to communicate up, down, sideways, in and out,” Corson said, adding that the course leverages Northwest’s online course management system, eCompanion, to facilitate communication outside of the scheduled class sessions. “They pick up a lot of humanitarian technical skills that include everything from humanitarian survivability, international humanitarian law, media relations, humanitarian or NGO (non-governmental organization) interactions, humanitarian logistics and a series of other technical skillsets. The other piece is they learn something about themselves because they tell me they find this highly stressful.”
The scenario is complex and contains a highly developed backstory in which students are immersed on the first day they walk through the classroom door. Atlantica, the story goes, is a small country that was once a British colony. Its mountainous south region is mineral-rich, while the more urban northern half is industrialized and agriculturally productive. The southern citizens’ status as a second-class people often exploited by the northerners for economic and political reasons has the country close to civil war.
Students are handed a list of resources and assigned to one of four non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations. They must figure out how to work together and contend with an array of obstacles that arise in the aftermath of the earthquake.
“When they first walk in, they don’t even get ‘Welcome to the class,’” Corson said. “They get: ‘Thanks for being here. Welcome to the Atlantica Relief Mission. We’re glad to have representatives from our various organizations.’ Then, throughout the course, we use the scenario to inform the technical instruction. Rather than having a written test, they have to perform it.”
To gain experience with media, the students spent a class session being interviewed by Northwest journalism students. The journalism students, under Mass Communications Instructor Jason Offut, played reporters from news organizations with varied cultural views. Each took their own, sometimes controversial, line of questioning.
Among the hot topics during a news conference and an element that played out during the remainder of the simulation was Abby Hoffman, the leader of the Atlantica Mission of Rights Without Borders, a made-up non-governmental organization that claimed to be focused on human rights but appeared more interested in protecting the rights of South Atlantica citizens. Midway through the scenario, the students learned Hoffman had been arrested, detained and was being abused with no charges brought against him. Assistant Professor of Geosciences Dr. Aaron Johnson played Hoffman, who eventually was freed.
In the scenario’s final weeks, the students successfully negotiated with the Ministry of National Security, which occupied the Churchill Plantation in Atlantica, to establish a humanitarian space and set up a camp. They also arranged for a convoy to deliver aid to the southern region.
“It has been a little bit of a slow process, but we are dealing with more than just an earthquake right now,” said Destinee Biesemeyer, a senior political science and psychology major from Liberty playing the role of a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “We need to make sure that our people are safe when we send them out there to do this humanitarian work. We do not want to create any more casualties.”
Chaz Johnson, of Clarksdale, earned his undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology from Northwest. He also minored in comprehensive crisis response and participated in similar scenarios. Johnson, who hopes to build a career in the medical field, is now working toward his masters in biology and works with Corson as a graduate assistant.
“I’ve learned more by doing this kind of experience rather than just sitting in a class and learning about it,” Johnson said. “When you actually have to do it, you learn a lot more because you have to use those critical thinking skills rather than just answering questions on a test.”
Said Biesemeyer, “The good thing about the CCR program is that it’s comprehensive. People from all different backgrounds are coming together, so you never know who’s going to bring something new to the table. I have the political science background, so when I see Atlantica I look at the political structure. Other people are geography-based, so they’re capable of going from the design of northern Atlantica to the design of southern Atlantica and seeing the things we need to think about when we are making that convoy. We all have something to contribute.”
Northwest launched its comprehensive crisis response minor in 2009, and the Board of Regents in October approved the program’s expansion as a bachelor of science major. It is a multi-disciplinary program that combines coursework from the departments of communication, theatre, and languages; psychology, sociology and counseling; geology and geography; and history, humanities, philosophy and political science. The program provides students with a balance of theoretical knowledge and practical skill sets that can be used in public, private and non-profit spheres. Graduates of the program also earn a Professional Development Series Certificate through FEMA's Emergency Management Institute.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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Northwest Missouri State University
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