Cultural explorations aid learning process for aspiring policymakers

July 15, 2009, 4:40 p.m.
Junior Summer Institute

Laughter overcomes Kylie Patterson of Temple University while she tries to avoid talking during a silent card game at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The game is designed to teach participants in the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute a lesson about cultural differences. The Wilson School is hosting 35 college students from around the country and the world for the seven-week institute, which is designed to prepare them for careers in public and international affairs. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

For 10 minutes in a classroom earlier this month at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the only sound that could be heard was the light shuffle of playing cards and the slap of the cards hitting the table, flicked by aggressive fingers.

The most important rules of the card game: No words, no sign language, no talking; the only communication allowed was through drawing pictures.

With these rules, 35 rising college seniors from the United States and several other countries participating in a workshop titled "Intercultural Dimensions of Policymaking" were to learn how playing a card game in complete silence would teach them a lesson about cultural differences.

The students in the Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute were seated at seven tables, trying to win "tricks" in a card game of trumps, similar to hearts or spades. They thought the goal was to win at their table in the tournament so they could progress toward a winner's table, and not be bumped down to a lower table.

After 20 minutes -- as the winners and losers went through rounds of changing tables -- the silence was broken by loud, angry huffing and subversive snickers, accompanied by increasingly confused faces.

Kylie Patterson of Temple University repeatedly beat her chest, slapped the table and threw her arms in the air, while Patrick Tighe of the University of Notre Dame leaned his entire body across the table, jabbing his pen at sheets of paper and straining not to speak while trying to make himself understood.

Junior Summer Institute

Rising college seniors (seated from left) Atlang Mompe, Michael Hayes, Mary Gleich and Kawasi Weston learn the rules of the card game during the "Intercultural Dimensions of Policymaking" workshop as moderator Michael Carrigan looks on. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

When it was all over, the workshop moderator asked each student to express in one single word how they felt.

"Cheated," "tricked," "amused," "bamboozled," "duped," "entertained," "indifferent," "mad," "superior," "skeptical" and "confused" were among their responses.

And the source of that confusion was revealed: What the students didn't know during the game was that each table had received a different set of rules before they began playing. The rules were taken away, and as the students moved from table to table, they were interacting with classmates who had a different understanding of how the game was to be played.

"It was after everything that I started to understand the symbolic nature of what happened," said Wilson Aiwuyor, a Nigerian native attending Syracuse University. "Most of us remained at our table, and then someone would come with their own notes (pictures) and try to challenge the rules that we all understood."

Junior Summer Institute

José Fulgencio of Northeastern Illinois University (left) and Miguel DelMundo of the University of Southern California compare notes after the card game, during which the students were encouraged to think about how their personal experiences might shape their policy considerations. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

The "Intercultural Dimensions" workshop is designed to focus on the cross-cultural aspects of policymaking by preparing students to interact effectively with people of diverse backgrounds. The workshop is part of a weekly schedule of seminars that make up the seven-week Junior Summer Institute, which aims to prepare students for graduate study and careers in public and international affairs.

The students take courses in statistics, microeconomics, international and domestic policy, and policy writing and analysis to build analytical and reasoning skills to create and implement policy. The cultural workshop is the part of the curriculum in which students are encouraged to think about how their personal experiences might shape their policy considerations.

"We're here to develop a forum where we can consider together the challenges and possibilities implicit in difference," workshop moderator Michael Carrigan told the students.

Carrigan is one of two moderators contracted by the Wilson School's graduate program office from the Princeton Center for Leadership Training to lead the cultural workshops. When he asked students to say whether they felt like winners or losers of the card game, Dante Perez, a native of Mexico studying at Lewis & Clark College, pointed out that "if you don't understand the rules, you don't know whether you won or lost."

One commonality the students observed was that the individuals who successfully imposed their rules on other students at their tables had the most positive experiences.

"I felt like a winner because I was able to go from table to table and convince people that my rules were the right ones," Kawasi Weston of Morehouse College said.

Junior Summer Institute

Victor Baten (from left) feels "bamboozled" while playing the card game with Gabriel Catapang and Brittany Claud, after learning they all are playing by different rules. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

The students noted that the tables that fared best in their communications were those with players who realized that they all had been given different sets of rules, and so instead immediately began to compromise to build a common set of rules.

Laurance Deschamps-Laporte, a native of Quebec studying at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, observed that while the compromise process worked during the exercise, it probably wouldn't work when confronting cultural differences in the world.

"This is a microcosm of culture shock in that you don't understand different values, different communications styles," Deschamps-Laporte said. "But we all have in common our gestures. In reality, if you go to a different place, you might not have even that in common. You can't erase where everyone is coming from and come up with a different set of rules and languages and cultures. That would be ideal."

Junior Summer Institute

The students participating in the institute share their personal experiences in a "finish my sentence" exercise to help foster communication skills and to train them to work with people of different cultures. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

In drawing an analogy of the world, the participants whose playing abilities kept them at their original tables -- and unable to "travel the world" as winners or losers to other tables -- never realized that there were other rules aside from their own.

Atlang Mompe, who is enrolled at Gettysburg College but has traveled extensively to study policy issues in Switzerland and throughout Africa, said that her classmate Deborah Francois of New York was able to communicate better when she arrived at Mompe's table, despite the fact that it was Mompe's "home." Francois had come to understand that her classmates had different conceptions of what was right and wrong in terms of how they played the game, and she helped educate others.

"I feel like I'm that little person who never left that small village in Africa," Mompe said. "Deborah left and so she saw the world. So it shows that it's important to get out of that small little box."

This type of insight leads to building the cultural sensitivity that is important for a policymaker, according to Melissa Lyles, the director of the graduate program office of the Wilson School and also the director of the Junior Summer Institute at the school.

"Of course it's important to train the students so they can do statistical analysis, and understand economics and international and domestic affairs," Lyles said, "But I think that people forget that you're making policy for people, and you have to be sensitive to people's cultural needs. And that's why we spend time on this, so it's not forgotten, and so the awareness is always present.

Junior Summer Institute

Katherine Philipson (left) looks on as Sabra Bhat tries to win a hand in the card game. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

"It's not just about the numbers at the end of the day," Lyles added. "It's about how the policies you're making will affect the people whose lives will be touched by the policy."

The Princeton summer institute is part of the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship Program, a national consortium of top public policy and international affairs graduate schools that prepare college juniors for advanced degrees and careers in public service. In addition to Princeton's PPIA Junior Summer Institute, there are four other institutions that host a PPIA summer institute: the University of California-Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. Each student enrolled in the program is fully funded and receives financial support for all program expenses. Five of this year's participants at Princeton are Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship students and are sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

All 35 students are chosen for the institute based on a demonstrated interest in and commitment to cross-cultural and social issues, as well as a commitment to public service. Princeton's program is the only institute open to international students, which participants said helps broaden the perspectives.

"For me, it's not just about what's happening inside the classroom," said Katherine Philipson, a student from the University of Oregon.

"The most valuable part of the experience is being with people from all over the country who have seen different parts of the world and have had lots of experiences, but who are all committed to social change," she asserted. "There's no substitute for that experience."

Highlights throughout the seven weeks of the program, which began June 11 and ends July 31, include: travel to Washington, D.C., to visit with officials at the U.S. State Department as part of the international policy workshop on the U.S.-European relationship and how it relates to national security; a graduate school fair at the University of Maryland; a weekly lunch series with Wilson School professors, practitioners and alumni; and the completion of a final report and presentation of policy recommendations using skills the students have acquired to address a current policy problem.

Junior Summer Institute

In another session, students at the institute explore issues focusing on education policy during a domestic policy workshop taught by Ronald Brady, a 1992 alumnus of the Wilson School's graduate program and founder of the Foundation Academy Charter School in Trenton. (Photo: Larry Levanti)