Diversity and Democracy

Global Women’s Leadership Development

“Living in Washington, DC,” observed BBC foreign correspondent Kim Ghattas in her recent memoir, The Secretary, “is like being on a big university campus with lecture halls where ideas are tested and debated … I can learn to my heart’s content” (2013, 233). Indeed, Washington is in many respects one vast learning laboratory. As home to the national government, leading media and arts organizations, nonprofits, think tanks, and advocacy groups, as well as a vast slate of conferences and symposia, the city offers opportunities for learning that are nearly endless. For the students of the Washington Internship Institute (WII), the city becomes their classroom; and for students in Global Women’s Leadership Development, a new WII curricular initiative, this classroom offers key opportunities to learn about the primacy and interconnectedness of gender issues across the landscape of the twenty-first century.

Liberal Arts in the Nation’s Capital

Each semester, a new cohort of undergraduate students representing over twenty-eight partnering colleges and universities around the nation and the world applies for a semester-long immersion in experiential learning, internships, and public service and leadership. WII provides each admitted student with an individual advisor, fully furnished housing, access to networking events, and a vigorous cocurricular program series offering a comprehensive look at the issues and events that characterize our times. Functioning as a satellite campus for our partner institutions, WII has successfully reproduced a small liberal arts college experience in the nation’s capital. Students earn a full semester’s credit by participating in an internship, an accompanying reflection seminar, and one of five elective academic tracks—Inside Washington: Politics and Policy, International Relations and Foreign Policy Studies, Environmental Law and Policy Studies, Global Health Policy Studies, and the new interdisciplinary academic immersion elective on Global Women’s Leadership Development.

The Global Women’s Leadership Development seminar represents WII’s investment in training a corps of future leaders committed to advancing gender equality and alleviating the global issues that impede women’s physical, economic, and social advancement. Gender inequality persists around the world, with women’s sexual and economic exploitation coexisting alongside their rise to positions of national leadership in places as diverse as Denmark, the Central African Republic, and the United States. WII wanted to offer students the chance to study and gain experience related to these converging challenges and opportunities, which will likely characterize much of the coming century.

Interdisciplinary Exploration

The Global Women’s Leadership Development seminar typifies the interdisciplinary nature of WII. The class uses a combination of scholarly texts, policy papers, news media reports, and arts and cultural texts to introduce students to the political dynamics, social and cultural norms, and institutions and rules that affect how women strive for and maintain leadership positions throughout the world. The course meets once a week for three hours, with each session typically split between class discussion and site visits or guest speakers. Class sessions might also include role play, simulations, and other exercises based on the day’s theme and texts.

WII has structured Global Women’s Leadership Development around the Essential Learning Outcomes defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2014). The course curriculum and activities reflect these objectives, including Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World, Intellectual and Practical Skills, Personal and Social Responsibility, and Integrative and Applied Learning. Throughout each semester, students pursue these Essential Learning Outcomes through assignments that introduce them to diverse research methods and writing contexts and encourage them to develop practical and scholarly skills. For example, students form research teams to observe and take field notes on work being performed in public spaces, with attention to categories like gender, race, class, and age. Students also research, write, and orally defend their own policy initiatives to foster effective leadership by and for women and girls.

Vibrant Experiential Learning

While Global Women’s Leadership Development is an intensive classroom experience, the real vibrancy of the course comes from treating Washington as a vast classroom. Students in the class, for example, have discussed the role of women as heads of state with Laura Liswood, secretary general for the Council of Women World Leaders and senior adviser at Goldman Sachs, as well as women’s role in and portrayal by the media with Erin Fuller, president of the Alliance for Women in Media. Sarah Peck, a US Department of State official who has extensive experience with gender issues in South Asia, spent a morning with students in fall 2013 discussing possible outcomes for women in Afghanistan after the coming US withdrawal. The Peace Corps, the New America Foundation, and Chemonics International have all contributed to the experiential learning components of Global Women’s Leadership Development by showing students the range of national and international opportunities available for women’s leadership.

Substantive, hands-on internships are essential to students’ experiential learning. Four days a week, students intern with an international nongovernmental organization, a women’s political or advocacy group, a corporation, or a government agency. Students have served in internships with such organizations as Vital Voices, Emily’s List, the National Organization for Women, Women for Women International, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Washington Bureau. At the end of each semester, students from all five academic tracks participate in a capstone experience: the Active Learning and Global Citizenship Forum, a formal academic poster session where they convey both their classroom and experiential learning throughout the semester in relation to their learning outcomes.

An Unparalleled Opportunity

Of WII’s five academic tracks, Global Women’s Leadership Development has consistently been one of the most popular. The course offers students an unparalleled academic and experiential education opportunity and has opened new doors for WII in interdisciplinary gender studies programs across the nation. Offering significant evidence of the course’s value, Coastal Carolina University recently established a Women’s Leadership Scholarship Fund under the innovative leadership of Terri DeCenzo, executive director of Women in Philanthropy and Leadership for the university. This fund enables Coastal students to come to Washington specifically to study in the Global Women’s Leadership Development track.

Producing leaders who understand the complex roots of contemporary challenges—and who are able to contextualize those challenges using a strong foundation in interdisciplinary study—is the primary goal of the Washington Internship Institute. We strive to create citizen-leaders who, regardless of their majors or professional goals, can serve as agents of change in a world that grows exponentially more complicated daily. Using one of the overriding challenges of our times as a springboard to this goal, Global Women’s Leadership Development gives students the intellectual and experiential grounding that will help them participate in making global gender equality a reality.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2014. “Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).” Accessed January 15, 2014. http://www.aacu.org/leap/vision.cfm.

Ghattas, Kim. 2013. The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power. New York: Times Books.

Mark Dalhouse senior associate at the Washington Internship Institute. Tracy McLoone is instructor of Global Women’s Leadership Development at the Washington Internship Institute.

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