Digital diplomacy

December 12, 2011

By Abby Rhodes

The economic woes suffered by the West African country of Guinea are rooted in an equation that hampers development on much of the African continent – rich, ample natural resources, plus corruption, minus infrastructure equals a wealthy few and scores of desperately poor.

Laura Doolin, an international studies and French major at Bradley University, is working to improve conditions in the country by reaching out to Guineans living in the United States. An “eIntern” for the U.S. Department of State, Doolin is engaged in digital diplomacy through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Virtual Student Foreign Service initiative.

A Guinea-based representative of USAID, a government agency that provides humanitarian and economic aid abroad, serves as Doolin’s supervisor and mentor for the eInternship. The two communicate weekly via email to line up research assignments and set project milestones.

“Ultimately, I’ll use online resources to identify the Guinean diaspora in the United States, professionals who possess the abilities to invest back in their home country,” Doolin said. “I’ll also be looking at companies in the U.S. that have a history of investing in West Africa, particularly in technology.”

Some 10,000 Guineans live in the state of New York alone. Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island are also major hubs for Guinean expatriates. Doolin’s targets are literally all over the map, but while many young researchers would be daunted by such a monumental task, Doolin is tackling the challenge with aplomb.

“First, I’m researching the country’s history and getting a gist for its economic development up to today, which will help me determine how to make its future development better and more efficient,” she said.

Doolin, a junior at Bradley, has been primed for the undertaking through courses in the Institute of International Studies. From freshman year, students are introduced to a broad range of topics and concepts impacting international affairs. At the sophomore level they begin to use qualitative inquiry to analyze specific topics of international significance, then present their findings for peer critique.

“Laura has a mind very inclined toward analysis, with the ability to break down and assess information that at first glance seems unwieldy,” said Dr. Charles Bukowski, chair of the Department of International Studies, who teaches the sophomore-level course. “To borrow a phrase from the TV series M*A*S*H, when it comes to research and presentation skills, Laura is the ‘finest kind.’”

Just a few weeks into her internship experience, Doolin can already cite a plethora of statistics and related historical data about Guinea and communicates a clear vision for her own role in promoting prosperity in the country.

“Guinea holds the world’s largest reserve of bauxite, a natural resource used to make aluminum, but that wealth never translates into development at the level of the individuals who live in Guinea,” Doolin said. “I hope that I’ll be able to work with some companies interested in that resource who would hire Guinean people, as opposed to bringing in their own workforce.”

Her French language skills are also a tremendous asset, as French is Guinea’s official language. Doolin will study abroad in France next semester, where she will continue her eInternship while refining her language skills.

“The beauty of this internship is that I can do it from almost anywhere, from Bradley’s campus or from Rennes, France,” Doolin said.

And the rewards should be plentiful. Doolin has an opportunity to prove herself a proficient researcher and communicator who requires little direction and oversight, an attribute graduate schools and future employers will find very attractive.

“Graduate schools these days are looking for more than just really good students. They want to see what else students can do,” Bukowski said. “The opportunity to have an internship with international focus for the federal government, working on a topic that is the perfect fit for her professional interest, will be a major benefit as Laura moves onward.”