Simulating Disaster

In a high-stakes exercise, humanitarian aid students spend a weekend in the woods overcoming obstacles and learning about themselves
Watch a video about the humanitarian simulation exercise in the Harold Parker State Forest. Video: Steffan Hacker
August 20, 2013

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Swatting gnats, the students lined up outside an open-air building deep in the sprawling Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Mass. They waited with their bags to go through “customs” in the fictional country of Worani, and just like many airports in developing countries, things weren’t going smoothly. It was an early foreshadowing of the days to follow: don’t expect things to go according to plan.

It was the start of a three-day simulation of an international refugee crisis, the capstone in a course meant to teach the next generation of humanitarian aid workers how to be effective in responding to natural and manmade disasters.

The simulation, now in its 10th year, is part of the Humanitarian Response Intensive Course co-led by Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts. About a third of the 100 or so students were from the Fletcher School, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts School of Medicine and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The rest were from Harvard and MIT, as well as professionals in medicine, humanitarian assistance and the military.

It’s an elaborate setup: over three days, former students, teachers and their family members and even actors play such roles as customs officials, refugees, soldiers, media crews—and even grandstanding celebrities. “In some ways, simulation is the wrong word for it. It’s actually theater,” says Walker, the Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security at the Friedman School.

There’s a different scenario every year, and the organizers keep the details secret so the next year’s students get the full effect. But there are some constants: setting up tents rain or shine, working day and night on sometimes tedious tasks and overcoming obstacles—lots of obstacles. “We throw in all sorts of real-life distractions and make it as real as we can,” says Walker, who teaches the course with colleagues from Harvard, Tufts and several nonprofits.

“We didn’t really know what was going to happen,” says Jamie Metzinger, who will receive a master’s in public health from Tufts in December. “You didn’t quite know what was going to be thrown at you.” And even though the simulation was an exercise—just theater, as Walker says—“it absolutely felt very, very real,” says Metzinger.

Nothing goes according to plan. “It’s like whitewater rafting,” says Walker. “You go down the river, and you’ve got to be able to adjust to what’s in front of you that minute, while keeping your eye on the objective.” So during the simulation, contradictory information, conflicts with “host country” officials and things like militia checkpoints impede the students’ progress. “You’ve got to be able to be constantly reinventing,” he says.

Another lesson, Peter Walker says, is “one of the great skills of leadership: knowing when you’re not the right person to do something.”

Walker should know. He spent 20 years working in humanitarian aid in Africa and Southeast Asia, among other regions, before coming to Tufts. “We have discovered through this training that learning in the classroom provides you with a set of skills, but it’s not very good at helping with making quick, value-based judgments and critical thinking,” he says. “Simulations are one of the best ways of teaching that. It’s the reality check.”

Stephanie Kayden, a physician and director of the Humanitarian Response Intensive Course, learned that lesson during her first foray in the field. She had gone to an earthquake zone in Pakistan, expecting to “pop up a field hospital and save the world,” she says. Instead she found herself doing paperwork—lots of it—and dealing with sometimes recalcitrant local officials. “The real world of humanitarian aid is a little subtle sometimes,” she says.

Trial Run

Over the three-day weekend in April, this year’s students learned many things, but probably the most important was what they discovered about themselves. Chris Paci, F14, found he thrived in a situation where ambiguity and confusion reigned. “It was a test run to find out whether I could handle the work,” he says. “I think the course showed me that I can.”

Jamie Metzinger had a different reaction. After the stress of the simulation, including what the organizers call “high-impact, low-probability events,” such as run-ins with militia groups, Metzinger decided humanitarian aid work isn’t for her. “It is a harsh reality that I think some people are made for, and some people aren’t,” she admits, “and I’m just not made for it.”

That’s the value of the simulation. “Much better to learn that in the woods of Massachusetts than in the harsh environment of Syria,” Walker says.

The weekend—with all its uncertainties and difficulties and challenges—has a way of bringing to light leadership abilities that might not have been visible in the classroom. “As the simulation is going on, people you hadn’t expected to [emerge] as leaders,” says Walker. “It’s the quiet leadership. It’s the person who maybe has not said much in class, but actually [become the one others] look to because they don’t panic.”

Some of the students are already putting their experiences to work. This summer Kamil Pawlowski, F14, worked for UNICEF in Myanmar, coordinating health, nutrition, education and other efforts. “The course provided me with an informal understanding of how all the sectors can fit together to achieve the greatest possible positive change,” he wrote in an email.

Emerson Tuttle, F15, V15, notes that one of his takeaways was learning “how I act and cope in an uncomfortable, foreign and stressful environment. You can never know how a situation will unfold, so your best preparation is to know how you tend to react to certain types of situations.”

Another lesson, Walker says, is “one of the great skills of leadership: knowing when you’re not the right person to do something.” It’s an object lesson in humility, “which we really don’t teach our grade-A, top-class students very often—but they need it.”

Paci seems to have taken that to heart. “I think probably one of the most important parts of humanitarian and development work is to take that step back and ask yourself the difficult questions about whether what you envision yourself doing is the same as what needs to be done.”

By the end of the weekend—the refugee crisis successfully managed—the tents were taken down and role-playing refugees mingled with their erstwhile helpers. It was a strange adjustment.

“Coming back was difficult, because the world they created there was so immersive, so complete,” says Paci. The day he returned home, he was in his bedroom and heard some people screaming on a soccer field nearby. “When I heard the yelling, the first thing I thought was, ‘Oh, there’s another crisis occurring across the lake.’ And it took me a while to realize I was back in the real world again, and that these things were probably not happening in Medford, Mass.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu 

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