Teaming with State Department for eDiplomacy

Montclair State partnered with the U.S. Department of State to offer the first-ever interactive diplomacy and foreign service course, using technology to connect Montclair State students with their peers in Turkey.

Students from the two countries came together in the groundbreaking course, taught in collaboration with the Department of State Office of eDiplomacy’s Virtual Student Foreign Service Initiative (VSFS), in spring 2013. The VSFS, launched in 2010 by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, harnesses technology to foster new forms of diplomatic engagement among young people.

Chosen from a short list of 12 universities to initiate the course, Montclair State was “an ideal fit because of our size, faculty expertise and the scope and diversity of our students,” says Department of Political Science and Law Professor Zsolt Nyiri, who co-taught “U.S. in the World: Turkey, Europe and the Middle East,” with Professor Nida Shoughry of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

The Young Turkey/Young America  program of the Atlantic Council also deserves credit for this initiative, according to Rennie Silva, a presidential management fellow in the Office of eDiplomacy. “We hoped to bring Turkish and American students together to bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding between the two societies,” Silva says.

Skype, social media, video teleconferencing, email and shared documents enabled the 10 Montclair State and seven Bilkent University students to participate in joint classes and collaborate on assignments. “It was amazing how technologies extended the classroom experience,” says Nyiri. “We’ve kept our class homepage on Facebook so that we can continue discussing current events.”

The course shows students how modern diplomacy occurs not only between officials, but also between everyday citizens. “I took the course because it was initiated by the State Department and was so different from any other class,” says Margaret Ochner, a Class of 2014 political science and jurisprudence major.

As part of the class, the Office of eDiplomacy offers one e-internship position, and Ochner was chosen as that e-intern, working remotely on assigned State Department projects. “This internship expands on what I learned in the course about how crucial technology is in conducting foreign policy today,” says Ochner.

Political science major Alp Köksoy took the course for personal reasons. “I identify myself as a native of Bilkent, so I felt obligated to join this course,” says Köksoy, who moved to Millburn, N.J., as a sophomore in high school.

The course was a memorable experience, students say. “We not only covered the relationship between Turkey and the U.S., we covered any current event relative to international relations,” says Köksoy.

Getting to know their Turkish classmates was a big part of the experience. “At the end of the semester, one girl told us she felt closer to us than to many of her Bilkent University classmates – and I completely agree,” says Ochner.

“We anticipate offering the State Department course next spring, assuming Secretary of State John Kerry would like to continue it,” says Jack Baldwin- LeClair, Department of Political Science and Law chair. “We want to clone the course,” he says, adding that Greece, China, Africa, Australia and Central and South America are all under consideration.

For the students, class participation was a transformative experience. “I feel honored to be a part of a class that was never tried before,” says Köksoy.