A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

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Intern Spotlight: Ryan Garfinkel

Intern Spotlight: Ryan Garfinkel

An Intern's "trip down the rabbit hole"

February 19, 2018Erin Garry

Junior government and politics major Ryan Garfinkel had an interest in national security before attending the University of Maryland, but was not sure how to pursue it until he met Trevor Gibson, a START Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) fellow. Gibson encouraged Garfinkel to apply to START’s Community, Resilience, Engagement, and Dialogue (CRED) Fellowship, a two-and-a-half year career development program funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs.

Garfinkel was admitted to the fellowship the second semester of his freshman year and has continued to deepen his ties to START, enrolling in its Global Terrorism Minor and interning on various projects.

“CRED has been a very enjoyable program and something that has sort of eclipsed most of my university experience so far,” Garfinkel said.

In addition to his START fellowship, Garfinkel is working on what he calls a “passion project” – a coordinated effort between USAID, NGOs, and Microfinancing organizations to build a crowdsourced micro granting platform for youth-led peace and security initiatives. He got involved in the project while representing START at a CVE roundtable hosted by the State Department and Freedom House and facilitated by Special Advisors for Global Youth Issues from both USAID and the State Department. In addition to speaking with other young men and women about the role of youth in combatting violent extremism, Garfinkel was able to stay in touch with USAIDs Agency Youth Coordinator who encouraged him to pursue this innovative idea.

Although unusual for an Agency Youth Coordinator to work directly with an individual, the need for this platform is clear. In 2015, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2250, recognizing the role youth play in the promoting peace and encouraging further involvement of youth in peace and security issues. In response, Search for Common Ground and UNOY Peacebuilders conducted a study determining that almost 50% of youth-led peace and security initiatives operate on an annual budget of $5,000 US or less. It was in light of this staggering statistic coming up at the roundtable where Garfinkel voiced the initial idea for a crowd funding platform and the project was born. A true case of right place, right people, right time, Garfinkel has worked over the past five months to develop three versions of his concept. Leveraging the connections of the USAID representative from the roundtable, the ground work for a pilot program has been laid with Spark Microgrants, Search for Common Ground, IREX, and Global Giving. They are hoping to launch the platform by the end of this year.

In reflecting on his past two years with START, Garfinkel had a tough time choosing what his favorite experience had been.

“I really value all of the opportunities I’ve had at START,” he said. “Each program I’ve participated in has added something unique to my experience and helped me grow as a scholar and a person. The people I’ve gotten to work with have been incredible – from fellow students like Trevor, who really mentored me and guided me to START, to prominent researchers like Dr.’s Stevan Weine and Peter Weinberger, who gave me opportunities to conduct real-world research, and Alejandro Beutel who helped shape my understanding of CVE." 

Garfinkel spent his summer in 2016, assisting Weine at the University of Illinois with research on the convergence of risk of violent extremism and trafficking. At the time, Dr. Weine had a small team of START interns helping him code and analyze the data he had collected for a National Institute of Justice report Transnational Crimes Among Somali-Americans: Convergences of Radicalization and Trafficking. This report was a continuation of his studies of the Somali-American community, the first major report about CVE being Building Resilience to Violent Extremism Among Somali-Americans in Minneapolis-St.Paul released in 2012.

 “I like to go down the rabbit hole so to speak, bringing past experiences together with current experiences,” Garfinkel said. “START has given me the opportunity to discover what areas of study I’m interested in and in what areas I’m not.”

Despite all the research projects he had already participated in, Garfinkel faced a new challenge last semester in his Government and Politics of Africa class,. He had to conduct an independent research project throughout the semester, crafting his own research question and coding his own data.

“It was so much different than jumping into an existing project,” he said.  

Right now, Garfinkel is focusing on his current projects and enjoying his remaining time as a college student. At START, he and his fellow CRED team members have been working on a literature review of CVE programming with former START research Susan Szmania who is now with the Department of Homeland Security as a Research Analyst. The CRED team is also working on developing campus appropriate responses to hate bias incidents and extremism occurring at UMD based on the CVE framework.

“I think START thrives at allowing people to sort of really push the limits,” Garfinkel said. “The researchers here really push students to take initiative and think outside the box.”