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Field Tested

Field TestedGraduate students head into the woods to learn how to handle a humanitarian crisis.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.03.10] On the weekend of April 23-25, nearly 40 Tufts graduate students ventured into the woods with dozens of their compatriots from Harvard and MIT to handle the needs of thousands of refugees.

The refugees, represented by wooden stakes, and the issues they faced were simulated. But the lessons the students learned were very real.


The exercise was part of a biannual, 10-day humanitarian studies course held jointly by the three institutions. The goal is to give medical, public health and policy graduate students hands-on training in carrying out humanitarian relief operations.

"It's all about introducing the complexity of reality into it," says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts, who helped organize the simulation. "It forces people to see the difference between working something out on paper in the classroom and having to do it with all the distractions and hardships of reality around them."

The exercise places humanitarian workers "in the field." In this case, the Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Mass., stood in for a region along the Chad-Sudan border, and students had to figure out how to get the job done amidst a host of problems and distractions such as lack of electricity, militia attacks, journalists, equipment confiscations, land mines and kidnappings. Representing organizations such as UNICEF, the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam, the students conducted assessments and developed plans to address the needs of the refugees, including food, water and safety.

This year, the Tufts students came from the Fletcher School, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the School of Medicine's JD/MPH program.

Greg Bertleff (F'10) says the exercise was one of the most valuable components of his Tufts experience, not only because he was able to apply his classroom learning in humanitarian studies, but because of what he learned about himself.

"The simulation is not only a learning experience, it's very practical experience for people who haven't done that sort of work to hopefully realize they do want to do the work or do not want to do the work," says Bertleff, who led a team representing the organization CARE. He notes that co-organizer Hilarie Cranmer, who works in global health at Harvard said, "if one person who took this simulation decided they don't want to do humanitarian work, then she has been successful."

And when Bertleff came out of the woods, he knew that humanitarian work was for him.

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography

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