DIPLOMACY at Texas

You don’t have to leave Austin, to connect with the world

WHAT IS IT?

An initiative launched Fall 2019 within the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin that employs tools of technology for use in public diplomacy through discussions focused around graduate education, career development, and academic advising. Beginning as a strategic recruitment initiative, Diplomacy at Texas connects students in other countries with UT students and faculty to raise awareness, dispel misconceptions about American education, and build cross-cultural bridges in keeping with UT’s ambitious motto: What starts here changes the world…

THE BACKSTORY

As with all good programs, this one has a backstory too.

Having spent time in Moscow piddling around at the American Center on the US Embassy compound, I returned to Texas with a sense of disappointment. All those connections I had made, all the wonderful times I had bonding with and meeting Russians of all backgrounds and ages, had to now end. And as typical for me, I fell into one of my depressions, even though I was back home for all intents and purposes with my husband and 3 kids whom I had summarily abandoned to have a lark, as some might say, on the other side of the planet (go ahead, judge freely). But I had a small fit of inspiration in the middle of some hot Central Texas night, when most fits of inspiration strike of course, and decided to email the Outreach Director of AMC (American Center in Moscow), Viola, to ask her the following:

Would AMC be at all interested in some sort of livestreaming Skype session (mind you, I abhor Skype) with students and perhaps faculty at UT for the benefit of students in Moscow who might be forlornly eyeing Harvard brochures thinking, “Это невозможно.” It’s not possible. But hey, even for most Americans, Harvard is practically science fiction fantasy. Hey, it’s not UT Austin is hard to get into – it’s Public Ivy for crying out loud – but it’s a bit easier and certainly cheaper at the very least, and if I may speak frankly, Harvard (nor Yale nor Princeton) doesn’t have much more to offer than UT except in certain individual talents (professors) and perhaps greener campuses (for half the year anyway). UT as a university has the 2nd largest amount of endowments (2nd only to aforementioned Harvard). So, why not come to UT graduate school, where it’s certainly sunnier all year long, you’ll not graduate drowning in debt, and… the breakfast tacos. Oh God, yes.

So… Viola rather speedily emailed back and said more enthusiastically than I expected, yes, AMC would be very interested in talking about the prospects of live sessions discussing graduate education at UT. To shorten a story that’s actually pretty short, Viola and I arranged for a Skype call (ugh, such a bad choice) and after several glitchy calls we finally were able to talk for nearly an hour and hammer out some idea of what these sessions would look like. We decided they would be formatted as Q&A, we settled on some dates (the 2nd Friday of each month), and we decided to get started ASAP. Viola aimed to secure the help of EducationUSA Russia to target graduate seniors and masters students in the Greater Moscow area, and a basic web page was created thanks to the AMC team whereby students could pre-submit questions. Well, I was soaring with good feelings until I realized…

The diplomatic implications of what I was doing, the reflection any badly organized event might have on not me (who cared about me?) but the university as a whole, and I didn’t have any confidence in Skype whatsoever even on campus with its blazing fast internet speeds.

Now, I had something new to stress about: Diplomacy. US-Russia relations. UT’s image… This was Moscow for crying out loud — and if the Kremlin wasn’t watching the FSB surely was. The whole world could implode!

I know, I know. You’re super worried – I can feel your stress levels rising – so let me ease your tension and say that all worked out in a rather miraculous and highly unexpected way.

Through Divine Providence, perhaps, I had landed a teaching assistant position with a world-renowned psychologist at UT who is one of those amazing innovators and is always looking for ways to make education fun and adapt it to available technology. So, this class I would be TA’ing turned out to be a livestreaming course that would be held in stunning, highly professional video studios on campus that I hadn’t known existed in all the years I had been at UT. After getting over my shock at the pre-semester meeting to do a video test, I felt compelled to learn more about the people who operated these studios. Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services, or simply LAITS. I thought maybe I had heard of them before… at some point. But there’s a lot going on always in a campus that’s the size of a town, and it’s like social media, you know; it drowns you and you forget the individual grains of information – it all becomes like indiscriminate sand. Discovering that LAITS had a lot more going on than the video studios and running online classrooms, I reached out to the director of the studios after some internal debate and wrote (as I typically do when overly inspired) a tome of an email. To my great surprise, he – Mike Heidenreich – got back to me and very kindly offered to set a meeting for the following week.

Professor Art Markman in LAITS video studios interviewing Jeremi Suri (Photo: MD)

We met and I immediately liked him. He seemed an ideal leader: calm, exceedingly pleasant, and patient. He took the time to hear me out which in itself is a big deal as I talk far too much when plagued by ideas, showed me to their recording studios as a result of my (perhaps) mentioning a slight obsession with podcasting, and then promised to get back to me regarding my question about where on campus I might properly conduct livestreaming with Moscow so as not to mar US-Russia relations further. A week passed, and I hadn’t heard from him. So I emailed. He swiftly replied with the unfortunate news that there was no good spot on campus where such sessions could be conducted without guaranteed technical difficulties. Phooey. He offered up the video studios (where the class I was TA’ing was being held you may recall) and said they could accommodate all the dates I mentioned for the low, low price of ~$800 per livestreaming session.

Now, you media folks out there might be thinking ‘that’s a bloody steal’. And I know very well that it is. But bear in mind, I’m operating on my own here as a student, furthermore, and there is no money I can draw from even though this is technically the 2nd richest if not richest university in the world with its own ESPN channel.

I might have fainted, but seeing as how I very much liked Mike and all the staff at LAITS and wanted to maintain that connection even if I didn’t have the rubles for actual practical usage, I emailed him back right away with the sad, sad news: I so appreciate the offer but there’s no way I can get that kind of money together especially in such short time. The first scheduled session was less than two weeks away. Mike’s response which admittedly had me nervous: Could we chat before your class in the studios for a few minutes?

I was running late the next day, but Mike spotted me in the hallway and we stepped into an empty classroom for literally a minute. He gave me news which shocked me: LAITS actually wanted to host these sessions in the name of diplomacy (or whatever) and they said if I could get an endorsement or sponsor from within the College of Liberal Arts, LAITS would cover the cost. Uh, oh happy day. Mike even did the honors of emailing the wonderful director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (my home court) and asking her – Dr. Neuburger – if she would endorse this program. She replied a few days later, of course! Mike then with dizzying speed put it all into motion. The program name and design for the background materialized magically – Diplomacy at Texas. Panelists were secured from UT. Connections were made between Moscow and Austin to facilitate the event behind the scenes. Technical rehearsals were scheduled. IT at the US Embassy in Moscow worked to perfect their video streaming. AMC flooded their social media with announcements of an upcoming Live Q&A session with UT and students maxed out registration.

The first event was an unqualified success, attendees overflowing AMC’s main hall. LAITS on Austin’s end and AMC’s tech people at the ensured that all went smoothly. No technical glitches. No dropped signals. And oh yeah, no Skype. I couldn’t have been happier. Something so small, so simple in my mind turned into a much bigger deal. And it kept getting bigger on the Texas end.

After that first session, Mike suggested that we have a livestream link posted somewhere within UT’s web infrastructure, meaning that anyone anywhere in the world could watch and submit questions which might potentially be answered during the session. Of course, I loved this idea. But he suggested that the Graduate School or Texas Global host the link, and for that to happen they would have to endorse it, and for that to happen they would have to know about it firstly. So, we set meetings with both the Dean of the Graduate School and the Vice Provost of Texas Global and secured blessings and the right to advertise the livestream through the Graduate School’s website. And that’s essentially how Diplomacy at Texas came to be.

If you want to get involved or find out how your university or institution can join forces with us to build crosscultural dialogue, drop me a line. We are currently looking for Spring 2020 partners in various countries. Hope to hear from you!