Reflections of an Intern: My experience in SSI, by Lara Salzer-Levi

Having spent two months interning at the Strategy and Security Institute (SSI) of the University of Exeter (UoE), saying that I have learnt a lot would be an immense understatement. During my time there, I had the unique opportunity to work alongside Dr Danny Steed, Lecturer in Strategy and Defence, who, having recently arrived to Exeter himself was more than enthusiastic to have me on board and give me the opportunity to get a lot more involved than I originally expected.

But before revealing the inner workings of the department, a quick word about SSI for those who don’t know what it is. The Strategy and Security Institute is a brand new department, set to change the University of Exeter’s student perceptions of strategy and security in today’s world, in effect applying theory to practice. With the ever changing balance in today’s political arena, I would argue that it is a perfect time to have a department which, through simulations and innovative teaching methods available for students of all divisions and age groups, effectively applies the political theory learnt throughout one’s degree to strategy in real life situations.  Come September 2013, the Institute will be fully operational with a Master’s course in Strategy and frequent simulations for those wishing to test their abilities to strategize.

Upon arrival to SSI for my first day as an Intern, I was more than intimidated knowing that the Institute I was about to involve myself with was home to people having experience in unique fields, with CVs that would intimidate even the most well-read PhD and with a profound military presence throughout the Institute. So as a second year student with no real work experience in politics as such, I was determined not to be overwhelmed. To my great surprise the atmosphere in the Institute was relaxed and welcoming, but having talked to Dr Steed before my arrival, I knew that beyond my initial impressions, my time there would involve a lot of challenging work, thinking outside the box, and hair pulling dilemmas.

And so, I was introduced to the ideas behind the simulations I would be helping Dr Steed in bringing to life and with the help of a big map we started brainstorming and plotting. I was trusted enough to be given the opportunity to get heavily involved in planning one such simulation based in Libya. The students participating were split into three teams and spread across three different locations throughout the University (immersing the participants in the way conferences are held during real life crises) and for the first time since starting my degree, I was able to apply what I had spent so much time learning in a classroom to a life-like situation. A situation which, were it to actually occur would be a tough challenge even for senior politicians and civil servants. Despite the simulation only lasting an afternoon, the preparation of it took much longer. Months longer.  What started as a dot on a map became an identification of a reoccurring crisis, which then became the involvement of third parties and finally, the creation of documents, podcasts and media packages to support the simulation before it was presented to the students. Planning the simulation not only challenged the knowledge I had already learnt in my studies but was also very fulfilling in watching our ideas match the development of events on the news, and the stress on the students faces as they argued over the best solution.  Having carried out three simulations already this year, and having hosted a multitude of high ranking officials to talk to the students, SSI has already made a prominent name for itself among the student body at Exeter.

But what an average student does not hear about however, are the perks of the job. I had the unique and incredibly eye opening opportunity of attending closed seminars with people including Jon Day, the Chairman of the JIC; a working lunch with former Secretary of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth; and an academic trip to the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre Lympstone. This as well as the treat of meeting individuals such as Dr Stephanie Blair, Andrew Rathmell, Major General Jerry Thomas, Professor Mike Clarke and Robert Fox.

However, it has to be said that without the presence of the SSI’s “driving force” none of the high-tech, lifelike and challenging activities I and other students at the University have participated in, would be as successful as I (as a student at the University) deem them to be.  Firstly, the Director of SSI, General Sir Paul Newton, is a man whose reputation and experience precedes him.  Katherine Felstead and Roo Haywood-Smith are the women who comprise the administrative driving force behind the immaculate executions of SSI appointments. Professor Paul Cornish, a man I did not get to see much yet found his work throughout all key areas of SSI, and Dr Steed, my supervisor and ‘problem solver’ in SSI, have been working towards setting up the new Master’s programme, the MA in Applied Security Strategy.  Along with recently joined Dr Catarina Thomson and Dr Sergio Catignani, the four of them will be leading modules on the Masters course come September.

My final two weeks with SSI consisted of my assisting in the smooth running of the SSI’s Grand Challenges dilemma. The Grand Challenges programme is newly established for first year students, following the completion of the student’s third academic term and exams. The university offers first year students to choose between a range of twelve day long dilemmas including the SSI dilemma  titled ‘Resetting the UK’s National Security Strategy’ which is currently due for re-assessment in 2015. The students were tasked with exploring what the UK currently deems a Tier 1 threat, and discussing whether, with the pending re-assessment of the document, the classification of some of the current Tier 1 threats should be altered. The students proved to be very hard working and fervent on the issue at hand, along with providing full engagement with Sir Paul Newton’s invited guest speakers, asking them very difficult and high quality questions, the answers of which they later considered when addressing issues within the dilemma. As a result, with the help of the supporting members of staff lead by Dr Steed, the students wrote a letter – which has already been sent to the Prime Minister – explaining the student’s desire to alter certain Tier 1 threats and terminology within the document in accordance to, for example, the development of technology i.e. the emergence and awareness of expanded cyber security threats since the document was written.

On a more personal note, my involvement in Grand Challenges was more on the administrative side, making sure the programme ran on time and aiding the Institute in any way I could, however, upon being invited to participate in certain activities throughout the two weeks, I can honestly say that even though I am not a first year student, I was impressed with the level of the discussion on behalf of the students, along with the quality of the talks and level of input the guest speakers provided.

Overall, I feel privileged in saying that I have had a wonderful experience working in SSI and as Dr Steed would rightly say, it is a department that makes the impossible, possible. There was never of moment of lull within the office, and the small pieces of knowledge and tricks I have picked up along the way are both priceless and incomparable. So, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone in SSI for welcoming me and giving me such a fantastic opportunity. I shall definitely be attending all further programmes and simulations the Institute organises; a great experience for those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to attend one.

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