OU Law Students Attend Secretary of State Kerry’s Town Hall Meeting in Washington, D.C.

March 25, 2014 | By Jessica Jones

On March 18, four OU College of Law students (Alex Duncan, Veronica Jacob, Cassandra Kolenda, and Caroline Lewis) and Professor Evelyn Aswad attended a Town Hall meeting at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on the topic of “Making Foreign Policy Less Foreign”.   Secretary of State John Kerry led the discussion and emphasized the importance of international law in resolving a number of global challenges, including with respect to the unfolding situation in the Ukraine.   After his opening remarks, Secretary Kerry responded to foreign policy questions from students in the audience.

Second year law student Veronica Jacob stated “The Town Hall Meeting was an invaluable opportunity for students to sit on the front lines, hear the voices behind American policy-making, and recognize their own role in shaping the future of foreign diplomacy.  Secretary Kerry reiterated the importance of student involvement, calling young people to demand accountability, to identify opportunities for change, and to do something about it." Alex Duncan, also a second year law student, agreed saying “It was an exciting chance to interact with one of the country's highest leaders.”

At the Town Hall meeting, it was announced that the State Department will be launching a nationwide program this fall called Diplomacy Lab, which allows students and faculty members to research complex global challenges facing the State Department and to submit the results of their research to the Department.  This will allow the Department to course-source long term foreign policy questions and allow students the opportunity to work on real world questions that affect U.S. foreign policy formulation and to interact with Department officials during the course of their research. It was also announced that the University of Oklahoma will serve as the Secretariat, or the lead coordinator, for the Diplomacy Lab Program.

There are currently four universities participating in the pilot launch of Diplomacy Lab, including the University of Oklahoma, which is conducting two pilot courses at the College of Law (Professor Aswad’s Arab Spring & Legal Reform Seminar and Professor Lindsay Robertson’s Comparative Indigenous Peoples Law class) and two at the College of International Studies.  The four students were invited to the Town Hall meeting because they are participating in the Arab Spring & Legal Reform seminar, which is structured to focus exclusively on answering the State Department’s questions about what factors have facilitated or undermined legal reform in the four Arab Spring countries that have recently overthrown their long-standing dictators in the last few years: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. 

The students have engaged in interdisciplinary research to answer these questions and briefed Department officials about their preliminary findings via video conference a few weeks ago.  They are also reaching out to various experts for additional background information, including engaging in a skype chat with a leading human rights activist in Cairo, Egypt at the beginning of March.  Their research papers will be sent to Department officials at the end of the semester.

The students from schools participating in the Diplomacy Lab pilot project were also invited to a small luncheon at the State Department before the Town Hall meeting to discuss Diplomacy Lab issues with a variety of Department officials.  Second year law school student Cassandra Kolenda remarked “I really liked how our lunch was held in a more informal environment, which gave us the opportunity to talk one-on-one with people who had many years of experience working in the international arena. After speaking with a few foreign service officers at the lunch I definitely have a better grasp of the challenges that occur in the real world when engaging in law reform abroad."

An OU alum on Secretary Kerry’s staff also treated the four students and Professor Aswad to a private tour of the Secretary’s office and the Department’s nerve center, known as the “Operations Center”, which monitors breaking events throughout the world 24/7.   Third year law student Caroline Lewis stated "A highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to tour Secretary Kerry's office as well as the State Department's Operations Center, which it turns out are areas few people get the opportunity to see. The office was beautiful and filled with significant historical pieces and the Operations Center was like something from a movie. We would not have had this opportunity had it not been for an OU alumna who reached out to Professor Aswad when she heard we were in D.C., which shows that the OU community truly looks out for each other."

Joseph Harroz, Dean of the College of Law, noted “I am very pleased that College of Law students are engaged in a project as innovative as Diplomacy Lab and are helping the Department think through some important issues.  OU has an enormous amount of talent and expertise to share on a variety of topics and it is great for the OU community to be of service to the State Department in this way.  I am looking forward to expanding Diplomacy Lab opportunities to additional students and faculty at the College of Law.” 

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