Schar School’s IR Policy Task Force Tours U.S. Institute of Peace—and Gets Career Advice

A young woman faces a man in a blue suit and white beard with flags behind them.
International Relations Policy Task Force student Zain Banan Ali Khateeb speaks with USIP senior expert on Central Asia Gavin Helf.
A young man in glasses looks at what a young man in a white shirt is pointing at.
IRTF students Christopher Dayton and Yousef Alakkad take in the sights at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Members of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s International Relations Policy Task Force, an undergraduate learning community focusing on pressing global challenges, paid a visit to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), where they enjoyed a tour of the facility and heard details about the nonpartisan, independent institute’s efforts to disrupt and prevent violence around the world. They also learned about how to land jobs in the peace and conflict field.

Despite the USIP’s location near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., which is not far from George Mason University’s Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia, campuses, for many in the IR Task Force, it was their first visit to the impressive 13-year-old glass and concrete building topped with “sails.” (The architecture is intended to reflect a dove in flight.)

Gavin Helf, USIP senior expert on Central Asia, and Joyana Richer, a program assistant on the USIP’s Afghanistan team, lead the Schar School students on the tour through the building. 

In addition to learning architectural details of the $186 million building, the students were equally enthralled at the personal histories Helf and Richer shared.

For instance, during an early stint in her career performing humanitarian aid with refugees from North Korea, “it shook me to my core,” Richer said upon learning that “there are people living at the same time as me in a totally different reality.” 

Helf had a similar realization while studying at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1980s, concluding that he couldn’t be satisfied just researching democracy, development, and stabilization and the lack of those in the world. He also felt deeply compelled to actively participate in bringing these ideals to life.

Both Helf and Richer echoed the importance of remaining flexible and being willing to take unconventional routes while navigating their careers. Richer, for example, originally wanted to continue helping North Korean refugees, but when the USIP presented a need for an Afghanistan program assistant, she modified her trajectory and accepted the position, finding just as much fulfillment in her current role as she had hoped to find helping North Korean refugees.

Upon opening up the floor for questions from the IR Policy Task Force students, several students voiced concerns about not knowing how to get into the international relations field and were curious about how to land positions at organizations such as the USIP. 

Their answers resonated with the Schar School students. An atypical program, the IR Policy Task Force is a learning community open to George Mason sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a keen interest in gaining a comprehensive understanding of different policy areas and learning how to draft policy reports for a variety of audiences. Over the course of a full academic year, the students conduct original international relations policy research and gain access to invaluable networking opportunities that help to propel their careers in international relations policy forward upon graduation.

William Barker, a public administration major and a leader at George Mason’s LGBTQ+ Resources Center, said the most impactful portion of the tour was Helf’s advice to visualize their future careers as “surfing the edge of history, and that you have to be able to adapt and be open to opportunities.”

Rich Rossetti, a government and international politics major who is serving in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, said the tour was a “good experience to get perspective.” Fellow government and international politics major Riley Pierce said the visit gave her “good insight on what to expect when going into the job field.” 

Additional reporting by Buzz McClain.