Standing in back:  Pingchao Zhu, Andrew Blake, Clare Haley, Darci Dobson.
Sitting in front: Ana Reed, Jessie Giguiere.

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2014 Martin Scholars

2014 Martin ScholarsAn interesting result: International Studies goes interdisciplinary

by Victoria Hart

Issues of global diplomacy are often left to appointed diplomats — official representatives and politicians — but Pingchao Zhu, a member of history faculty at the University of Idaho, and this year’s Martin Scholars took a closer look at public diplomacy this year.

Zhu said official diplomacy occurs when political “big shots” such as presidents or secretaries of state shake hands, argue, and try to prevent wars from happening. When individuals or non-government organizations (NGOs) engage in diplomatic dialogue, scholars call it public diplomacy.

“What the Martin scholars are doing is in that direction,” Zhu said. “That kind of diplomatic process, done not through presidents or secretary of state or diplomatic officials, but through the hands of individuals and NGOs.”

Five UI students spent the last 8 months researching, writing, revising, and presenting original reports about global diplomacy. The papers covered a variety of diplomatic issues, from protecting natural resources in Ecuador, to digital diplomacy in Asia, to the return of illegal ivory trade, online data protection, and Obama’s diplomacy with African nations.

Zhu served as this year’s faculty adviser for the Martin Scholars program, and said it was a learning process for her as well as for the students. “It was a very productive process for everyone involved,” she said. “It gave me an opportunity, and gave the student an opportunity to present their research.”

Bill Smith, director of the Martin Institute of International Studies, said part of the program’s purpose is to provide an opportunity for undergraduates to engage in high quality research and share it with the scholarly community. “We’ve had Martin Scholars present their research in a variety of academic conferences, including one at Harvard University, and many others use their major papers as the writing sample that secured them funding in grad school,” he said. “They present their work publically, publish their work where possible, and become more skilled at presenting complex ideas in a manner at once comprehensive and succinct.”

The way students presented ideas became a sticking point early on, as the difference between disciplines arose, Zhu said. History research papers rely heavily on proper citations and sourcing, while policy papers more typical of international studies research conclude with recommendations for improvement. Zhu gave students the choice of which sort of paper to produce, and the result, she said, was interesting. All the students elected to write a research paper, but most of them including a particularly political twist at the end.

“Most history papers just conclude to say this event or this policy is very productive or unproductive … period,” Zhu said. “And then, following that period, Martin Scholars say how we can do better … that’s one of the most interesting aspects.”

Many of the research papers incorporated recommendations to improve future policy, Zhu said.
“This is a very interesting combination because you look at the historical environment then you look at the contemporary development, and then they analyzed and they say, ‘If things could be done better this is what we would like to recommend.’”

By tracing the history of certain policies, issues, or events, and discussing the problems involved, students reached a level of confidence and expertise in their topics that led them to make policy recommendations. Zhu pointed out that historians often have similar motivation in their studies. She alluded to the adage that history repeats itself, saying, “we don’t want to screw things up again.” Instead, she said we aim to learn from history rather than repeat it. “The students adopted the useful parts from both of the international studies and history … put them together and came out with a very interesting result,” Zhu said. Zhu’s personal research in public diplomacy blossomed during the year, as she gave a talk in South Korea last September and recently submitted an article for publication on the same topic.

Smith said faculty advisers for the program are selected based on three components: “consideration of the faculty member’s reputation vis-à-vis student mentorship, an eye to balancing faculty partners among the various departments in (the college), and our ability to enhance the research and teaching agenda of the faculty partner.”

He contacted Zhu more than a year before her term as adviser was to begin. She had already heard about the Martin Scholars program from colleagues, she said. “I got very excited and flattered and immediately interested in becoming part of the upcoming year,” Zhu said. “Personally, I appreciate that opportunity… to work with a few bright students from their program.”

She said advising the range of projects led her to learn more about topics she wasn’t familiar with. The students presented their findings and Zhu collected their papers at the end of the spring semester, but the impact of the year’s work is more lasting than either, Zhu said.
“Each year, this program produces … additional something that also represent the learning outcome of the international programs and the university,” Zhu said.

Smith said the program’s main goals include positioning international studies seniors to earn graduate school funding while providing an opportunity to conduct graduate-caliber research. He said Martin Scholars also form a close-knit community within the Martin Institute.

The program also fosters interdisciplinary discussion and research, Zhu said. Throughout the revision and editing processes, she said she was careful not to impose a history-department perspective on international studies students.