Going Viral

For the sixth annual crisis simulation, Global Scholars students tackled immigration, social media, and what it would be like to pitch an idea to President Donald Trump. They were assisted by USM alumnus R.P. Eddy ’90, bestselling author and former senior U.S. diplomat.

On Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, the United States government was entering day 22 of its shutdown over President Donald Trump’s request for Congress to allocate $5.7 billion to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The timing could not have been more opportune for University School of Milwaukee and its Global Scholars students to host their sixth annual crisis simulation—the theme of which was immigration and politics in the digital age—on that same day.

The simulation, led by Upper School History Teacher and Director of Global Studies Dr. Henry Wend, featured a special guest: R.P. Eddy ’90, chairman of Ergo and former director at the White House National Security Council. Eddy most recently co-authored a bestselling book, “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes,” with Richard Clarke, and has served in a variety of advisory positions to top American government officials, among other roles.

The mock crisis summit was the culmination of nearly six months of preparation, and students were assigned to teams representing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Nike and the National Rifle Association. They researched how these organizations are affected, either positively or negatively, by illegal immigrants. During the summit they used their social capital in an attempt to influence the president (whose role was played by Eddy), and subsequent public policy, to further their stances on immigration. “What I’m going to try to do, to really get my knowledge across to you, is not what you read in the headlines or see in speeches,” said Eddy in his opening remarks. “But I’m going to try to express why he [President Trump] really cares about this issue and what matters to him. And by this I mean immigration, and, in particular, the wall.”

The students used ReactLearn, a closed social media environment, where they developed memes and social media posts on behalf of their NGOs, with the intent of influencing public opinion—in this case, freshmen who were invited to vote on the posts they found most influential.

“I was part of the ACLU group,” said Mira Stephens ’20, “which made pitching to the president difficult. It was interesting to see the different perspectives of the groups and how to construct a pitch to somebody who you know will not be on your side.”

This was the first simulation to deal with domestic challenges, and the first to involve social media, which proved popular with students. “I really enjoyed this simulation,” said Lisa Wong ’20. “It focused more on domestic issues and it also dealt with social media, which I think we really excel at because we grew up with it. We’ve seen how social media and inherent biases affect our perspectives and play a major role in society today.”

The simulation also taught students to be more critical consumers of information. “I’d say I’m more aware that a lot of times, things you see on the internet are not necessarily vetted completely,” said Thomas Wright ’21, who played the role of media in the simulation. “For us in the media, it was just a race to see who could publish something first. We all just kept trying to pump out as much material as possible. And in order to do that, we weren’t able to carefully fact-check everything.”

For Wend, the annual crisis simulation is a way to make real-world events relevant and interesting to students. “These are national security issues that the students are working on, even though they might not necessarily realize it,” he said. “But my hope is that they understand that this is a really vital, global issue that’s playing out right here, right now, without us actually telling them. It is the whole point of the exercise. I could yammer at them for a couple of periods and maybe show them a film, but it wouldn’t be as valuable as them actually living it and coming out with that idea on their own.”

Next year’s crisis simulation will involve Russia and the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Global Scholars will read Masha Gessen’s award-winning book, “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” and meet with the author in September. Support for the crisis simulation comes from a small group of parents, parents of alumni, and alumni, resulting in additional funding thanks to a matching grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation.

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