Why This Professor Is Bridging the Gap Between D.C. and Moscow

Why This Professor Is Bridging the Gap Between D.C. and Moscow

Sam Potolicchio

Why you should care

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Sam Potolicchio
Washington, D.C.

Dr. Potolicchio is the most versatile educator in the world,” said Maria Shkarupelaya, director of outreach and strategic initiatives for Preparing Global Leaders Forum, who nominated Potolicchio for the OZY Educator Award. “His job training aspiring leaders in over 100 countries, but what’s between the lines is how he can reach anyone.”

I’ve had a brutal travel schedule — in the past month, I’ve been to eight countries, and I have an awful cough. I’ve been working on my book this morning. If we were to retreat back a couple of days, I had this fantastic trip in Bulgaria, where four former students of mine organized a lecture series. It was inspiring to see people I taught seven years ago who have now become very big educators in their country.

I grew up in the D.C. area. My father was a practicing neurologist at Georgetown University and, later, George Washington University — I’ve always been surrounded by an academic community. When I was an undergrad at Georgetown, I coached a basketball team where we tried to get students from elite private schools together with kids from public and charter schools in places like Southeast D.C. I fell in love with the breakthrough moment of chemistry that started on the basketball court. I love watching people improve and get better, and this was something that led to me becoming a teacher.

Sam Potolicchio

Sam Potolicchio speaks in Moscow

Source Courtesy of Sam Potolicchio

I am the director of global and custom education at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. I also lead a nonprofit leadership training program for rising leaders from around the world. So I don’t have time for coaching basketball anymore. I probably fly about 700,000 miles a year. Every week I cross an ocean at least twice. Traveling frequently in the past five years from D.C. to Moscow with my full-time academic positions, I’m getting a different perspective. I’m able to see how other people approach geopolitical issues, which is giving me a panoramic vision that I wouldn’t have had if I stayed in my own bubble.

I created an English-language bachelor’s degree program in global leadership at the Russian academy. I basically exported a liberal arts education, because you can often learn more about public policy in a history class or literature class than in another international relations course. The main difference is, there’s more of a narrow focus with the Russian students. Although they may often demonstrate more grit and more effort when it comes to the work that they put in, they’re not as likely to express the same sort of creative orientation as Americans toward how different disciplines may synthesize.

This is the big challenge of our age: How do we overcome our natural predilection for being tribal, for being inside our comfort zone?

When I teach a class on public communication, I’ll typically show a political debate video. Students will watch the video, and I’ll ask them what they saw. Then we’ll watch the video again, with an emphasis on what they missed — the really small variables that make an enormous difference in the exchange. I try to put students inside a practical simulation so they start to own the process and the theory comes alive.

At my nonprofit, the Preparing Global Leaders Forum, I train about 300 people from 120 countries every year. It started as trying to get together Serbs and Kosovars; Armenians and Azerbaijanis; Israelis and Palestinians; Turks and Greeks; and Ukrainians, Russians and Georgians — the idea being that often the people you disagree with might be the best contributors to future ideas. With that as the basic foundation, I realized there were other kinds of cognitive diversity we should add to the mix. Get scientists together with politicians, lawyers with poets. They’re out of their comfort zone in a city they have never been to before, with a curriculum stretching their minds, in an environment that is going to make these close friendships more of a possibility.

This is the big challenge of our age: How do we overcome our natural predilection for being tribal, for being inside our comfort zone? How do we push people — whether it’s elites or industrial workers or children starting out in the education system — to realize how fun it is and how challenging it is to stretch yourself? People really do like to be stretched. Once you have that genuine intellectual conversation and talk honestly and sincerely about what you believe in and listen to someone disagree with that, you have a bit more fun. And hopefully the programs we’re engineering could have a ripple impact to show that this is an attractive experience.

The original version of this story incorrectly named Preparing Global Leaders Forum.

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