GPC Women in Global Security visit UNC Chapel Hill

With generous support from the US Embassy in Finland, GPC held a student exchange on the topic of Women in Global Security with the UNC Chapel Hill Global Affairs programme in April, 2024. In this article, Helsinki students share their experiences while visiting Chapel Hill.


The Women in Global Security student exchange programme began in the first week of April, 2024, when our group of five students, GPC Programme Director S. M. Amadae, Vice-Dean Hanna Wass and Research Assistant Hannah Huber from the University of Helsinki travelled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This programme was developed from a grant received from the US Embassy in Finland by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Global Affairs programme and the University of Helsinki Global Politics and Communication (GPC) programme. The students who participated were selected on the basis of their academic merit, work experiences, and demonstrated interest in the exchange programme’s theme of women in security. The participating students are Elisa Leonoff, Viivi Kontinen, Jenni Luoto, Kaisla Punkanen, and Maija Hetemäki, who represented the Global Politics and Communications Programme, the Finnish World Politics Ungergraduate Program and the Finnish World Politics MA Programme. 

The goal of the student exchange programme was to facilitate connections between students from Finland and the US and to explore the challenges and opportunities for women in security-related professions. During the week at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we had the opportunity to attend lectures, participate in group discussions and visit security sites, including a US military base. The programme concluded in May with the UNC students visiting the University of Helsinki.

1 April 2024


Our first day in Chapel Hill began with an orientation, during which we met some of the students from Chapel Hill. Following the orientation, the UNC student ambassadors gave us a tour of their campus. As we explored the gorgeous campus area, we were shown the library, the football field, and the famous well where it is tradition to take a sip of the drinking water at the beginning of semester for good luck with exams.

The main event of this first day was a workshop on US foreign policy and the US 2024 presidential elections, facilitated by UNC Global Affairs Professor Erinn Whitaker. During the workshop we discussed how polarised political environments affect universities as well as the intelligence community. We  learned about how officers working in the intelligence service navigate their roles in relation to the shifting politics of different presidential administrations (e.g., differences between the Biden and Trump administrations), as well as how the upcoming elections are viewed in Europe. For instance, we brought up our views on how the perception of the US has changed here in Finland.  We also expressed concerns about the US's future support of NATO, and the need for Europe to address its own security needs.

2 April 2024


On Tuesday morning we had the opportunity to visit a lecture on a course called “Introduction to Peace and Security Studies”. Getting to experience an authentic American teaching set up felt unique. During the class, Adj. Prof. S.M. Amadae gave a fascinating guest lecture on Finland, NATO, and Nuclear Security, which prompted interesting discussions on the differences between the US and Finnish public views on nuclear policy, especially related to the 2024 Finnish presidential elections. These were the first presidential elections of the so-called “NATO-Finland”. Sharing what legislation Finland’s nuclear posture is based on, and learning about how American students view Finland as part of the Eastern part of NATO, increased understanding of Finland's nuclear status on both sides. At the end of the class, we joined student groups working on policy brief projects. For example, one group was working on a project on Russia’s and US’ power in Niger. Together we discussed how the cycles of US politics, which seem very short from the Finnish perspective, influence the foreign policy analysis.

In the afternoon, we travelled to the Joint North Carolina National Guard, State Emergency Operations and Cyber Security Task Force, which together react to natural and human-caused threats. This centre coordinates between the different branches of emergency management at the North Carolina state level. Our hosts held a panel with professional women who worked in security roles including as a private investigator, a cyber security analyst and Federal Bureau of Investigation intelligence operative. We found the discussions on election security topical in the context of the upcoming US presidential elections. We talked about how the perceptions of reality may significantly steer peoples’ thoughts and actions, whether the perceptions are true or false. We also discussed gender barriers. The women on the panel had not faced gender barriers in their careers. They emphasised that for them hard work had secured their successes. 

3 April 2024


On the third day, we began with a simulation led by Professor Whitaker on defining an acceptable outcome in Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the simulation, we went back to May 2022 and adopted roles in which we would participate in the Council of Foreign Relations. During the simulation, we were divided into teams, each of which took the role of a member of the Ukrainian government or other pertinent stakeholders. The teams took varying approaches according to their prescribed roles. For example, in the role of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, the team highlighted international cooperation in their argumentation. Ultimately, each team had to choose and argue for an acceptable outcome to the war. Even though we all represented various interests according to our role in the simulation, the Council could still agree on many things. One of these was the urgent need for the war to end, although some views differed on the level of urgency and what sacrifices they were willing to make to end the war. The simulation was a refreshing new take on learning because it made us practice our negotiation skills and see the complex issue from multiple perspectives.

In the afternoon, we had a roundtable discussion with Ambassador Jarmo Sareva, Finland´s Consul General in the US and US Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, who formally served in the Republic of Panama. This was an interactive conversation with the theme of war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s intentions, and implications for US and European security. Ambassador Sareva discussed the history of Finland’s uneasy relationship with Russia, and where we stand in the matter currently as a new member of NATO. This was an excellent opportunity to get to interact with the Ambassadors on such an important topic for both Finland and the US.

In the evening, there was a public event at the university titled “From Neutrality to Alliance: Finland One Year After Joining NATO: discussion with the Finnish Consul General, Ambassador Jarmo Sareva”. In his speech, His Excellency emphasised NATO’s relevance today, and the importance of remaining united. The packed day ended with a formal dinner celebrating Women in Global Security with Ambassador Stephenson and Consul General Sareva speaking with participants on topics including diplomatic careers.

4 April 2024


On the fourth day, we visited Fort Liberty, an expansive US Army base formerly known as Fort Bragg. Upon arrival, we engaged with three female master's students in military service who shared their diverse backgrounds and the challenges of completing their degrees within ten months. At the base canteen, we experienced a diverse American military dining setup, contrasting with Finnish military canteens.

Lunch was shared with Brigadier General Sara Dudley, a pioneering female general who discussed her career and experiences in the US military.  She has served as Chief of Staff, US Army Special Forces Operation Command, and spoke successfully navigating male-dominated environments. She shared an anecdote about overcoming gender biases when she was assigned to serve in a critical role in a combat zone, successfully executing her duties against initial opposition. Brigadier General Dudley's career advice was to "solve your boss's boss's problems", a strategy that significantly propelled her career.

Our tour continued to the fort's newly constructed and expansive physical and wellness centre.  This fitness centre focuses on individual troop's fitness and utilizes Finnish technologies like the Oura ring and Polar sports watches to monitor soldiers' health and performance. The centre also emphasises managing stress and promoting healthy cooking among soldiers.

5 April 2024


Friday culminated our programme and we dedicated the day to refining our soft skills and fostering further cultural immersion. Our day started with an improvisation workshop aimed at sharpening our communication and leadership abilities. We learned that effective leadership and cooperation hinge not only on verbal communication but also on the embodiment of one's message. Understanding somatic communication and cultivating self-awareness proved essential, particularly for those in public-facing roles. The workshop prompted us to reflect on how we engage in communication across organisational levels. We practised role-playing scenarios to modulate our tones and body language to convey meaning beyond verbal expression.  

During our lunchtime roundtable discussion, we engaged with esteemed guests Ambassador Barbara Stephenson and Professor Erinn Whitaker. Together we explored the unique challenges and opportunities facing women in the realms of foreign policy and security. Ambassador Stephenson shared insights on using agenda-setting power and building on the reputations of reliable experts. She emphasised the importance of outcome-based leadership and wellbeing within teams. Professor Whitaker's guidance on navigating workplace dynamics, including the tendency for women to over-prepare and overwork, offered pragmatic strategies for success. Both speakers conveyed valuable lessons for navigating professional challenges. They underscored the importance of maintaining composure, setting realistic expectations, and knowing when to assert boundaries. 

That evening, the UNC-Duke softball game (Go Heels!) ended in the victory of the Blue Devils. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed the game, proudly representing UNC with our brand new Carolina blue merchandise. 




Overall, the week was an unforgettable experience for all Finnish and US participants. During the week, we not only gained valuable substantive knowledge and insights from experts we would not have had the chance to meet without the programme, but also the official and unofficial discussions we had and insights we shared with each other and the US participants left us feeling incredibly inspired and empowered.  Since returning to Finland, members of the group actively participated in planning the UNC Chapel Hill visit to the University of Helsinki.  As well, students have applied for, interviewed for, and obtained internships in the area of security and defense.