Feb 13, 2019
by Tate Miller, PhD

Becoming ECOPA

While serving as Assistant Dean in the former Graduate School of International Studies (GSIPS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), I had the honor of reporting to Dr. Edward Laurance, who at the time was the Dean of GSIPS. With a new Fall semester just around the corner, and with both of us new in our positions, there was a slight sense of panic in the air.

We had been handed the responsibility of getting students registered and into classes. There was no clear-cut process in place for any of this. Worse still, there was no one in the building to us show us what to do, or how to do it. Except for some excellent guidance from then Provost Amy Sands, we were basically on our own. My focus was to make sure all the processes and operations went smoothly. Simultaneously, Dr Laurance focused on making sure we could deliver upon the academic and career expectations of newly arriving MIIS students.

Fertile Ground for Change

Little did I know at the time, Professor Laurance had been handed a much taller order than what I had been handed. In fact, even though I had been a student at MIIS myself, I knew very little about those expectations. However, as the semester began, it was not long before I realized fulfilling student expectations was one of many areas where Dean Laurance would shine. The responsibilities he had taken on would have sent most into a panic, but he was unfazed. For decades, he had been doing these things for individual students. The only thing that changed was the scale. He now had an entire graduate school of students under his wing, many of whom needed his wisdom and guidance.

Following his graduation from the Naval Academy, as well as other higher education institutions, Dr Laurance had devoted his entire career to violence reduction in fragile states around the world. His work in this arena was legendary. Remarkably, he had done much of this singlehandedly. As much as he was able to accomplish under these circumstances, (and it was considerable), he knew that high-impact, long term results would come only if he could literally create a small army of like-minded people who would also make violence reduction and economic development their life passion.

At an early stage in his career, Dean Laurance had made the connection between violence reduction and economic development. The lower the violence, the greater the likelihood nations could move toward economic and social growth. He also recognized that to carry out this work on a larger scale, he needed the fertile ground of graduate students eager to be inserted on the frontiers of global development. Dean Laurance would be at his most impactful if he could connect students to projects where the need was the greatest. That fertile ground of like-minded students would be the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Since its earliest days, MIIS was keenly aware that it did not have the same brand appeal as a top tier graduate school. Students who chose MIIS came for other reasons, one of which was the extraordinary range of hands-on, meaningful internship opportunities. ‘Stretchwork’ as Dr. Laurance called it. No one better at finding stretchwork than Professor Laurance. Whether it was placing someone at the United Nations in New York, at the World Bank in DC, or in a small NGO, he was a maestro at putting the right students in the right positions. If he could not find the right opportunity, he created them. It was in this seething cauldron of creativity that Dr. Laurance conceived and launched the work of Team El Salvador (TES), now widely known as ECOPA under the leadership of Adele Negro.

Connecting the Dots

In 2006, a former MIIS student named Yuniya Khan, who had spent a summer working in a community of the Bajo Lempa known as Ciudad Romero, described her work to Dean Laurance. He quickly realized the extraordinary circumstances around Yuniya’s story. It fit the mold for a new stretchwork opportunity. With little more than Yuniya’s description of her experiences, Dean Laurance conceived the initial title “Team Monterey” and began sorting out how to get more students to continue what Yuniya had begun. This was to be the seeds of Team El Salvador. Only after a decade long struggle for funding and relevancy was Team El Salvador to become ECOPA.

At the time of Team El Salvador’s inception, Dr Laurance was already familiar with MIIS alumnae Adele Negro. Her knowledge of Latin American and high-level fluency in Spanish were well established. She was also familiar with the inner workings of MIIS and had a strong network of students and colleagues to tap into. Once Dr. Laurance approved developing the program into an actual field experience for students, he immediately introduced Adele to Yuniya. The dots were connected. As Adele’s classmate in the late 1990’s, I was confident he had chosen the right person. Professor Laurance had once again performed his magic.

Passing the Baton

At about the time Dr Laurance had launched Team El Salvador, the Monterey Institute was beginning its merger with Middlebury. Every program and every project had been placed under the critical eye of budgetary and academic scrutiny. How were these field experiences funded? What was the benefit for students? This was a new world for Middlebury. Answering these questions successfully was the difference between carrying on or getting the budgetary knife. The fight was on. Keeping Team El Salvador alive meant competing for funds with other programs across the campus. This is when the synergy between Dr Laurance and Adele Negro first came into play. Adele provided the successful field experience narratives that Ed required for his budget requests. Although he was relentless in his advocacy for funding, he needed an ace up his sleeve to get approval. Fortunately, Team El Salvador had a key ally positioned to advocate for and approve budget requests.

Provost Amy Sands had long since demonstrated her strong support of Ed’s and Adele’s work by keeping Team El Salvador highly visible with the MIIS Board of Directors and other leaders. Time and again she went to bat for TES, always finessing the budget in order to keep the Team El Salvador program alive and functioning. TES will be forever indebted to Provost Sands for her critical support during these lean times at MIIS.

In 2009, the Center for Advising and Career Services (CACS) opened its doors in the McCone Building on the MIIS campus. As the Dean of Advising, Careers and Student Services, I oversaw the CACS operation and began working closely with both Adele and Dr Laurance on all career related matters, including Team El Salvador. Dr Laurance and Adele used CACS as their touchstone in connecting students, faculty and opportunities. Although informal, for the first time in its history, Team El Salvador had a landing base. Interested students and alumni of Team El Salvador could work with the CACS staff, with Dr Laurance and with Adele. In retrospect, CACS was a ‘safe zone’ for Team El Salvador, a place where it was championed, where the incredible student experiences could be packaged and presented to those who controlled the funding. CACS used Team El Salvador to strengthen its own legitimacy, and vice versa. I worked closely with Adele and Dr Laurance to keep Team El Salvador on the front burner of the Institute’s off-campus opportunities. Each year, we had to recruit students into the program, package the stories of returning students, and once again throw the Team El Salvador spear into the MIIS budgeting fray. Adele became the tip of the spear.

Even with the support of CACS, it was to a large extent the interplay between Dean Laurance and Adele that kept things going, but as Middlebury began to cut and trim its budget and change the direction of MIIS programs, Team El Salvador was also placed on the ropes. It was 2016. Adele Negro was not about to let this happen. The only way for the important work of Team El Salvador to continue was for Adele Negro to form her own organization. The birth of ECOPA was imminent. The baton had been passed.