A research internship at the US Department of Defense provides the opportunity to work at the intersection of worlds — non-profit and for-profit, civilian and military, informal and formal — where the subject matter does not always fall into clear subject categories in the way that university curricula does. Yet sometimes, it is precisely these types of experiences that help us learn in ways classrooms never do.
This summer I traveled to Washington, DC, to be a research intern for the Transformative Innovation for Development & Emergency Response (TIDES) project at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy. This project is housed within the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. TIDES combines the unparalleled command of the US military with its disaster relief operations and allows anyone else interested in helping out to join them — literally, anyone (fun fact: the largest humanitarian organization in the world is the US Navy).
Now in its sixth year, the project maintains an international network of more than 1,500 private businesses, volunteer organizations, NGOs, universities, and government agencies that take humanitarian assistance seriously, and pools all of its assets into one communal think tank. Essentially, TIDES aims to make disaster relief a less chaotic, more efficient process by bringing people together to establish friendships before a disaster hits, so that they're not exchanging business cards when a hurricane is already on its way. Tech demonstrations, hackathons, and training camps bear witness to collaborations among the most unlikely agencies. For example, engineers from the University of Singapore and the Naval Postgraduate School test their prototypes in front of US marines, Mongolian Red Cross nurses, and teams from CrisisMappers and OpenStreetMap, who all offer constructive criticism until the final product is showcased in the Pentagon courtyard. The results are unbelievable.
The true education I received is one of renewed hope, reinforced by the knowledge that global partnerships are enduring and powerful.
My primary responsibility was the conception of a USD 10,000 challenge hosted jointly by TIDES and the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), the military agency spearheading counter-IED measures. Now that the US military is phasing out its presence in Afghanistan, the US government wants good ideas on how to empower villagers to be their own "eyes on the street" and report IED sightings to local police without fear of retaliation. I was also expected to understand military organization, recognize their ranks, add more members to the TIDES network, attend their talks and conferences, and be familiar with their newest technologies and track where they have been deployed.
But the true education I received is one of renewed hope, reinforced by the knowledge that global partnerships are enduring and powerful. Headlines like "A Christmas fire in South Sudan prompted a fast, steady and miraculous international aid response" are testament to this. Ex-soldiers with white hair and bleeding hearts have engaged me in countless, priceless conversations about why they joined the TIDES network — conversations during which they described elders they aided and children they couldn't save. They point out for me the inaccuracies in Western media reports of such people, provide me with the email addresses of CEOs of volunteer organizations looking for "kids like you," and drop on my desk the scholarly journals they published decades ago, detailing incentives and methods for foreign governments with impoverished populations to further mobilize their women into the workforce. Domestically, the military is deployed every year with the muscle and brainpower of the TIDES network behind it, to fly water-bombing helicopters over wildfires, to shovel snow off highways during blizzards, to restore Internet during tornados, and to reinforce levees with sandbags during floods.
This summer I became immersed in a world of eccentrics who hope for the best and then go get it done.