Leading from Everywhere
Leading from Anywhere

The story starts like this. A devastating earthquake hits the island nation of Frontera, creating a situation that de- mands an international response. But such efforts rarely go according to plan. Upon arrival, English-speaking relief workers struggle to communicate with French-speak- ing officials. Once the team finally makes it through the security screening process and into the country, they encounter further obstacles. In one village, they attempt to complete a market assessment, but the local matriarch refuses to answer their questions or even acknowledge their presence. Another village greets them with hostility and bellig- erence. The group is eventually stopped by insurgents, who order them to exit their vehi- cles and lie face down on the ground.

For many would-be leaders and policy experts, goodwill and an earnest desire to help are never in short supply. But when it comes to humanitarian crises, “good intentions aren’t enough,” Batten professor Kirsten Gelsdorf says. “The question is, how do you analyze options and make difficult decisions when you’re trying to work with communities in critical situations, where people’s lives are often at stake?”

To educate Batten majors on how to excel in such situations, Gelsdorf orchestrates a field training and simulation event in Virginia’s rural Clarke County. The three-day affair is the culmination of a capstone course offered for a small number of fourth-year students. It’s staged by Global Emergency Group, a consulting organization that provides similar trainings for humanitarian and security professionals in the United States and around the world.

“The experience itself is really incredible,” says Batten alum Jonathan Meyer, who participated in the simulation this past spring. “It definitely exposes you to things that you’ve never experienced before, in situations you probably never even imagined.”

Such experience-based opportunities characterize the Batten School’s commitment to preparing consequential leaders, says Dean Allan Stam.

“We’re not just preparing lower- to mid-level bureaucrats,” Stam says. “That was not Frank Batten’s vision. He wanted to recruit, train and place leaders who will make a real difference.” That vision informs a broad range of international research projects spearheaded by Batten faculty. It also helps forge strategic relationships, building networks that enhance the School’s presence around the world.

Critical, thoughtful optimists

As someone who has spent her career working in operational aid and global policy development, Gelsdorf brings a unique perspective to her position at Batten. A professor of practice, she came to UVA after serving nearly 20 years in the humanitarian sector, most recently as chief of the Policy Analysis and Innovation Section at the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Her field postings have had her working to address such international crises as the Ethiopian famine in 2000, the war in Liberia in 2003, the Indonesian tsunami in 2004 and the Haitian earthquake in 2010.

Every spring, Gelsdorf teaches one of UVA’s most popular courses, an overview of the key issues in global humanitarian affairs response. Since the class is open to anyone enrolled at UVA, it exposes a diverse group of students to the essential principles of effective relief work.

“ We’re trying to develop the next generation of global policy leaders,” Gelsdorf says, “and we’re trying to build a curriculum in humanitarian aid. Given that this is an interdisciplinary field that is quickly growing, there are a lot of policy questions that haven’t been answered yet.”

Beyond policy questions lie the logistical and emotional realities of humanitarian work, which are often challenging even under the best circumstances. Successful aid workers must know how to lead in tumultuous environments.

“In this field, there’s often no clear metric for exactly how to make things work out,” Gelsdorf says. “I want students to discover more about themselves in their relationship to failure, and how to apply some of the thinking and skills they learned at Batten in situations where there isn’t a clear outcome.”

During the simulation weekend, Gelsdorf creates such situations in a variety of ways. For one challenge, she gives students 45 minutes to write a memo reporting their progress to their home organization, then plays loud music the entire time and arranges to have frequent interruptions, like urgent radio communications that need to be addressed. “Just because you have 45 minutes doesn’t mean that things aren’t going to go wrongduringthattime,”shesays.

The purpose is not discouragement, but nearly the opposite: self-discovery, reflection and the development of hard skills in the crucible of a tangible challenge.

Far and wide

In addition to her teaching duties, Gelsdorf serves as director of global humanitarian policy for Batten’s Global Policy Center. Her extensive international experience hardly makes her an outlier there. According to Dean Stam, the majority of Batten’s faculty members do research that in some way touches on international issues, and more than a quarter do direct investigations into international topics ranging from immigration and refugee issues to sanitation and education.

“The question is, how do you analyze and name difficult decisions when you’re trying to work with communities in critical situations, where people’s lives are often at stake?”


All of this research tends to be limited in scope to specific challenges, disciplines and locations. Such is the nature of progress most of the time. Yet when sudden developments demand sudden responses, change emerges not from individual efforts, but from extensive networks.

When a devastating tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2014, the most effective U.S. response came not from the United States Agency for International Development, an organization committed to providing international aid, but from the U.S. Navy. While the latter didn’t have humanitarian relief written into its central mission, it did have ships capable of reaching affected areas quickly.

Philip Potter, director of Batten’s National Security Policy Center, says it’s important to note that governmental networks made that happen.

The thing about networks is that you can’t forecast how they’re going to help you. In unforeseen situations, the relationships in a network are preexisting. That’s what’s valuable.


To build networks for the long term, the Batten School—and specifically the National Security Policy Center—have been courting governments around the globe to attract students to UVA. In September the School announced that it would begin bringing employees from the Japanese government into Batten’s Master of Public Policy (MPP) program. Discussions concerning similar arrangements are underway with several other governments. “We’re trying to convince individual agencies that working with us here at the Batten school, at the University of Virginia in the United States of America, is in the interest of their governments,” Stam says. “And it's a doable sell. We’re making progress on a bunch of different countries.”

All of the nations Batten has contacted so far share basic economic and military interests with the U.S. That’s not a strict requirement—“Still, I’d be a little surprised if we ever had a North Korean student at Batten,” Potter says.

Yet sharing interests doesn’t necessarily mean agreement on every point.

“We are trying to contribute the analytical tools and perspectives that allow students to see the world through each other’s eyes,” Potter adds. “Rather than all coming to agree with one another, they’re going to understand how each side views its core principles. That gives us an element of reality that would otherwise be lacking.”

Familiarity with different viewpoints will serve students particularly well on the global stage, Stam points out. “Cross-cultural negotiation and communication can be incredibly challenging when there’s a lack of trust and mutual understanding,” he says. “Classmates who spend two years together develop both, and Batten students will carry that with them for their entire careers.”

Greater than the sum of the parts

Though students admitted through Batten’s burgeoning international partnerships will already hold positions in the organizations that send them, they’re sure to find that the mid-career MPP degree enhances their indi- vidual prospects and increases their chances of being promoted, Stam notes. But the part- nerships also play a much larger role: they for- tify and extend the Batten network.

“People don’t always understand how beneficial it is for alumni to have their former classmates not only working in similar jobs, but participating in a foreign government, a foreign business or an international consulting company,” Stam says. Virtually every organization that recruits Batten students provides extensive training in its own policies and methods, he adds, “but these employers can’t provide the professional network that an alumni networking organization can provide, if it is both designed and supported well. And that’s why we have invested so heavily in developing these long-term network effects both domestically and internationally.”

“The great value of the Batten School, 10 years from now, is not just going to be an aggregation of individual achievements. It will be the extensive, unpredictable network effects of the 2,000 or 3,000 Batten alumni that work in federal service— the majority in the United States, but some of them in foreign governments as well.”

Fortunately for the aid workers, it's all simulation

Batten students, he says, have the power to make a consequential difference in the world, but not through their individual efforts alone. “We have lots of alumni who are achieving great things. But the great value of the Batten School, 10 years from now, is not just going to be an aggregation of individual achievements. It will be the extensive, unpredictable network effects of the 2,000 or 3,000 Batten alumni that work in federal service—the majority in the United States, but some of them in foreign governments as well,” Stam says.

The process of building that network is well underway. For the second straight year, every Batten graduate has left the School with a job offer in hand. “And it’s not just that everybody’s got a job,” Stam says. “They’ve got great jobs. If these students keep doing what they’ve been doing, they’re going to be very successful, influential leaders in their organizations.”

This will no doubt prove true in the humanitarian sector, where 12 of Gelsdorf’s stu- dents have secured competitive internships within the United Nations and other major humanitarian organizations in the last three years. Others have won prominent full-time positions; one is creating a data platform in Jordan for a humanitarian agency respond- ing to the conflict in Syria, for example, while another is completing deployments to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia with the U.N.’s World Food Programme.

But there is no single, standard path for Batten alumni who seek to create change.

“There are so many different ways to contrib- ute,” Gelsdorf says. “You don’t need to go to Yemen or work in a refugee camp—you can also go to Texas and work on asylum policy, or you can stay in Charlottesville and work on supporting resettled refugees. All of those things have a humanitarian imperative behind them.”

That imperative is a vital component of good leadership. Sometimes it manifests as a drive to tackle challenges on the ground, perhaps through relief work in disastrous situations. At other times, it takes the form of something far less tangible, but equally important—the push to make the right connections with the right people, at just the right moment.