The Policy Institute’s New Virtual Landscape

In times of universal uncertainty and fear, the GDS community engagement and experiential learning office knows the Policy Institute is needed more than ever. Over the past weeks, they have worked to transition the program into a virtual setting. 

“The Policy Institute is a cornerstone of a GDS education as an incubator for activism,” Director of Community Engagement and Experiential Learning Jeremy Haft said. “It is powerful because it connects the heart to the head to the hands.”

This summer, the program will run five tracks for the first time due to extensive student interest, compared to just two tracks last year. The tracks are the small groups students work in to learn about and engage with issues in society. This summer will be one of testing out new techniques and activities that could be used in future summers.

“A lot is being replaced,” said Leigh Tait, program associate for community engagement and experiential learning. It’s just going to be a different experience for this year’s fellows. We have been meeting with track leads every week for a while—one-on-one and in a faculty group setting. There is going to be some consistency of experience across the five tracks, but there are also some things each track is going to uniquely have.”

One major change to the curriculum for the program is that the culminating action projects will serve the GDS community internally. A few tracks will be coordinating with lower/middle school teachers to provide additional programming for related curricular topics. Policy Institute leadership hopes this will help foster greater connections between GDS students when school returns to the unified campus.

Fellows this summer should expect engaging discussions, meaningful interactions with community partners, offline explorations and virtual lectures about their topics. 

Although not having an in-person experience is obviously disappointing, some students have also come to the realization that there is still much to be gained from the virtual experience.

“Everyone I’ve talked to seems to be down about it, but I think it’s important to stay positive and [look for] what we can get out of it,” sophomore Elias Rodriguez said. “I may not make the same connections I could have made, but it will give us a stronger foundation when we can see people in person.”

Senior Ethan Sze, who participated in the Life Resettled track last summer, said, “I signed up last minute and I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I ended up really enjoying it. We interacted with organizations and did a lot of hands-on work. It was pretty awesome. I didn’t know many people in my group, but by the end, we had become good friends over the shared experience of learning about immigration.” 

While many of the aspects of the Policy Institute can’t be replaced, there is excitement from the program’s leaders about the greater reach that the program will have. Plans are in the works for tracks to interact with programs and experts from across the country, some of which the Policy Institute would not have communicated with previously. For example, the Policy Institute plans to connect with a similar program, run by Catherine Pearson, former GDS Director of Community Engagement and Experiential Learning, at the Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“We are not limited by the bounds of physical space anymore,” Haft said. “In a way we’re expanding the Policy Institute to accomplish more than we have in the past.”

So how do you transition an in-person experiential learning program to an online one? For the Policy Institute leadership, the answer wasn’t immediately clear.

History teacher Topher Dunne, who leads the Waging Life in the DMV track of the Policy Institute, said, “We talked about the idea of if we could do some work dissociated over the summer and when we return to school, do some of the experiential learning. We thought that if we just canceled [the program], then anyone who made plans would be disappointed. Since it’s such a small group, we decided we could do something as an alternative.” Dunne said that any interaction with others during such trying times is a positive to foster community.

In the end, the program’s leadership decided that you can’t just deliver the same content over Zoom; you have to make something that’s authentic and new. The goal is not to simply replace the in-person program, but to ignite students’ interests in social justice and advocacy. This year, the Policy Institute aims to deliver a program that helps stoke passions in their topic over a virtual landscape.

Haft said, “The Policy Institute really lights a fire under everybody. We strive to continue that spirit this year.”