Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Crisis simulation gives students experience in disaster relief

Whether made by man or by nature, a disaster leaves distraught and displaced people in its wake. Addressing the needs of survivors is the work of highly skilled aid workers and mental health professionals.

To ensure that the next generation of those workers is prepared for effective service in the fog of calamity, the University of Denver will sponsor an international humanitarian crisis simulation exercise over Memorial Day weekend, May 26–27.

Funded by a DU internationalization grant and by the Josef Korbel School of International Studies’ Social Science Foundation, the exercise will test the skills and knowledge of up to 30 students in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology’s Master’s Program in International Disaster Psychology and the Korbel School’s Humanitarian Assistance Program.

“It’s an opportunity for students to see how what they learn in theory in the classrooms plays out in the field,” says Chen Reis, director of the Humanitarian Assistance Program and one of the simulation’s organizers. “We can’t send our students out into war zones, for obvious reasons. Nor is it really appropriate to do so while they’re being trained. But we can give them a sense of what their world will be like when they begin their professional lives.”

What’s more, says co-organizer Courtney Welton-Mitchell, an assistant professor with the international disaster psychology program, the simulation offers an experience that can’t be had elsewhere in North America, integrating humanitarian generalists and international disaster psychology specialists in one exercise. Other simulations sponsored by academic institutions typically focus on medical triage. This one concentrates exclusively on protection and psychosocial services.

“Essentially,” Welton-Mitchell explains, “what our students are being asked to do is to greet internally displaced new arrivals and conduct a rapid needs assessment. They are doing this within interdisciplinary teams, meeting not only with the displaced persons but also with local government officials, representatives of local women’s groups, and the Red Cross. They are then expected to put together a project proposal and present it to a donor panel.”

The simulation was piloted in May 2012 with a one-day event on the lawn outside the Ammi Hyde Building, a stand-in for faraway Chad, where, according to the scenario, a civil conflict had caused untold numbers of people to flee their towns and villages. Participating students were dispatched to an area of the country experiencing an influx of internally displaced persons—known within the field as IDPs.

Guided by a script and some preliminary coaching, volunteer actors played the IDPs and demonstrated a host of mental health and psychosocial needs. Some were young children separated from parents. Others were victims of gender-based violence.

Another group of actors, Welton-Mitchell says, played local officials, Red Cross representatives and staff members from nongovernmental organizations. They introduced obstacles, educated students about on-the-ground realities and responded much the way their real-life counterparts respond during a real-life crisis.

For the would-be humanitarian aid workers, all this work culminated with a presentation of proposals to a donor board staffed by faculty members from the GSPP and Korbel School programs, as well as community participants with disaster relief experience. The panel represented major donors, such as USAID and the European Union. Panel members examined proposals, questioned their authors about everything from budget to implementation, and issued rulings on each proposal. In 2012, Welton-Mitchell notes, none of the student proposals received funding—a result, alas, all too true to real life.

Determined to make the 2013 simulation even more reflective of reality, Reis and Welton-Mitchell have added several new components, as well as an extra day in which to accomplish everything. Students will be asked to respond to lightning-fast changes in the scenario. For example, Welton-Mitchell says, as they prepare their proposals, they will receive periodic alerts: Cholera has been diagnosed among several displaced persons; the nearest water supply is contaminated; additional fighting has resulting in more persons being displaced.

In addition, students will receive media training and encounter reporters seeking confirmation of rumors or updates on events. They also will learn how to enlist new technologies — mobile apps, for example — in their efforts to address problems and craft proposals.

Liyam Eloul, a student in both the international disaster psychology and humanitarian assistance programs, found last year’s simulation so helpful that she’s participating again this year.

Eloul comes to the simulation with experience in the field. Before enrolling at DU in fall 2011, she traveled to Oman on a Fulbright grant to study the aftermath of a devastating cyclone. She also worked with AMERA (Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance) in Cairo and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus, Syria.

Even with experience under her belt, Eloul found the simulation a challenge. It tested her composure, skills and knowledge.

“On an individual level, you watch yourself be under stress, under time pressure and deal with insurmountable needs,” Eloul says.

The simulation also tested students’ ability to collaborate within teams, to capitalize on individual strengths and to compensate for weaknesses.

“It was really nice to be on a multifaceted team,” Eloul recalls. “Everybody has their own specialties and their own things to bring to the table. I’m trained as a therapist, so I’m really good at listening. But I’m not good at negotiating.” As a result, she excelled at the IDP needs assessments but discovered that some of her peers were better at negotiating with government and agency officials.

Eloul also learned how classroom learning holds up in a crisis. Sitting in class, she says, the processes associated with disaster relief seem matter-of-fact: a set of procedures, checklists and logical next steps. But after completing the 2012 simulation, Eloul realized that things she thought would come easily in the field did not.

“When you are in a high-stress situation, a lot of [textbook knowledge] just bleeds away,” she says.

Such discoveries are just what Welton-Mitchell and Reis hoped for when they designed the simulation.

“We’re looking at hard skills and soft skills,” Reis says. “Do students know how to do certain kinds of things, like write a proposal or interview people to assess a situation, pull together information from various sources and arrive at an understanding of the context? As well as soft skills, like how do they cope with stress, how do they communicate with people from a different background or with a different communication style?”

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