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The Student Perspective
When Jessica Smith became the personal assistant to the United Nations Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs, she wasn't very familiar with the topic of nuclear non-proliferation. After two years at the UN, however, she had a new career in mind.
It wasn't one without pitfalls. In her time at the UN, she was constantly reminded of the precarious state of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. While still interested in the field, she had prepared herself to head down a career path laced with "futility and frustration."
But Smith, a first-year MALD student, has found a new perspective since arriving at The Fletcher School.
"I suddenly don't feel so cynical anymore," she says. "I don't feel disenfranchised. I feel empowered to give it a really damn good try."
Why the turnaround? "Maybe it's the optimism and the enthusiasm of my classmates and my professors. Maybe it's just that acquiring more knowledge gives a person a certain degree of power," she says. "For whatever reason, I feel like I have more of an ability to hopefully bring about change."
Smith came to The Fletcher School to get a firmer grounding in foreign policy as she looked to advance in the field. She had become interested in foreign policy in college while interning with the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver, British Columbia. But as she began the process of joining the U.S. Foreign Service in 2003, the war in Iraq broke out.
Watching the situation there unfold, she became more convinced that multilateral diplomacy, rather than a unilateral approach, was the right path for her. So in 2006, she pursued a job at the United Nations.
"Ending up in disarmament affairs was incredibly serendipitous, because I would have had no way of knowing, if that hadn't happened, that I was so interested in disarmament, specifically in nuclear non-proliferation," she says.
Coming out of her UN experience, Smith had not felt too optimistic about the prospect of reducing the nuclear threat across the globe.
"The idea of nuclear weapons is a very scary thing," she says. "Given the number of nuclear weapons that are present in the world today, a lot of them are being held by countries we cannot trust not to use them. The idea that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is in danger, it's very frightening."
She credits Fletcher with changing her attitude on the matter.
"If anything, my brief time so far at Fletcher has made me feel more optimistic and more empowered about the prospects of actually strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime."
For this reason and more, coming to The Fletcher School has been everything Smith hoped it would be.
"I don't have enough positive adjectives to even describe it," says Smith, who has gotten involved with interviewing prospective students in the admissions office, serving as a staff editor for the Fletcher Forum and joining an a cappella group. "It astounds me how my entering class is so diverse and yet so cohesive… Our differences are taken as learning opportunities, not as reasons to clash with each other."
After working in Rwanda to help with reconstruction efforts after genocide racked the tiny African nation, Viola Erdmannsdoerfer wanted to study the root causes of the conflict and others like it. That interest brought her to The Fletcher School, where she has valued the blend of practical, field and academic experience that professors bring to the classroom.
"It's always kind of eye-opening when you study something for a long time and then you go and experience that it's actually real. People are actually thinking about it and using what you're researching," says the second-year MALD student.
"It introduced me to the general concept of peace operations," says Erdmannsdoerfer, who credits the course with helping her get an internship last summer at the United Nations' peacekeeping department. "It really made me consider peace operations as a potential field or career."
At the UN, Erdmannsdoerfer interned in the monitoring and crisis response unit, analyzing armed groups in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Erdmannsdoerfer also appreciates her professors' ability to stay in front of trends in foreign affairs and bring their insights and experiences to their courses.
"I'm doing a study module with Professor [Richard] Shultz on armed groups. He identified this new trend in security studies," says Erdmannsdoerfer, referring to Shultz's work on non-state armed groups and the security threats they pose. "The Fletcher faculty is really on top of world developments and transmitting their research directly into classes to make available for students."
Discourse on world developments in the Fletcher community is not limited to the classroom. This past summer, when conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia, there was heavy traffic on the Fletcher student e-mail list about the issue. Students who had contacts in the region relayed first-hand dispatches, and all sides of the issue were vigorously debated.
"These assessments were so valuable, and I forwarded them to some of my UN colleagues who also really valued them," says Erdmannsdoerfer.
She says she also gained valuable—firsthand—insights from the course "African Communities in Crisis" with Associate Professor Marc Sommers, who, according to Erdmannsdoerfer, "had traveled extensively to war regions and had spoken firsthand with rebel groups and child soldiers and could tell us their experiences."
The type of insight that comes from experience cannot be found in books alone, and for that reason is something Erdmannsdoerfer finds particularly rewarding about her Fletcher courses.
"If you sit here in Medford, you can read and you can theorize about why people do that or why certain rebel groups use a certain methodology, but he really went there and he spoke with them," says Erdmannsdoerfer. "To hear reports about these child soldiers and what music they listen to and what movies they like to watch and how they got there and all of these things, you see it from a different perspective."
Profiles written by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications
Archival photos courtesy of Tufts Digital Collections and Archives
This story originally ran on Oct. 20, 2008.