From Empathy To Action: Hacking 4 Diplomacy Bridges The ‘Access Divide’ For Students

Raised by a single mother committed to public service, I learned from a young age to channel empathy toward action, and shape cultural differences into a launchpad for growth and understanding. This upbringing sparked a desire to learn more about the world, which grew into a desire to pursue public service in international affairs. While I knew early that I wanted to pursue public service as a career, when I entered college as a freshman at James Madison University, I had no idea where to start. As a student with limited means, I lacked the connections and mentors needed to introduce me to career pathways and government agencies I might be interested in.

Much of that changed in my junior year in 2023. I signed up for Hacking 4 Diplomacy (H4Diplomacy) – a for-credit course that connects student teams with State Department personnel to help solve some of the Department’s hardest problems. H4Diplomacy is available at four universities in the U.S. It is a sister program to the global Hacking 4 Defense course, and Hacking 4 Oceans, Hacking 4 Homeland Security, and Hacking 4 Climate & Sustainability classes.

H4Diplomacy had been on my radar for some time. It involves working directly with stakeholders from government agencies on real-world challenges. The class’ problem sets are sourced from the State Department, which was appealing to me. Another plus – the possibility that this could help lay the foundation for the public sector career I dreamed of.

H4Diplomacy provides students with tangible work experience and critical skills in the public sector, and brings extensive networking and connection opportunities that no other academic program provides. The government benefits as well, by getting an outside perspective to bureaucratic and often bogged-down processes, bringing potential solutions to the agencies that need them.

While H4Diplomacy bridges the divide between academia and government, it also bridges the divide between government-adjacent work and equitable access and opportunities for lower-income students to pursue their career goals.

The U.S. government is a difficult world to break into without prior connections, extensive extra-curriculars, participation in elite clubs at prestigious universities, or competitive internships on Capitol Hill that are often unpaid. For students who need to support their own way through school, or who may not have established connections, this is an ongoing challenge for entering government service. Many low-income students have to earn money for college, which limits time for the extracurricular activities and unpaid internships that can be difference-makers on college students’ resumes.


Our team’s problem sponsor was a senior official within the technology development branch at the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). The Department of State was looking for an effective, non-lethal way to deter attacks on American missions, including U.S. embassies and consulates, that are guarded by the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, a Marine detachment specifically in place for the protection of U.S. missions. The current deterrent involves powder-based tear-gas canisters, which, once deployed, require a Marine to physically reload the system, putting them at risk and affecting their ability to monitor the situation safely from their post. The combustibility of the solution makes transport and replacement difficult. Their hope was to find a solution that could be used repeatedly with minimal effort by the Marines on duty.

Our team’s solution is a mounted, liquid nozzle dispersal system of a capsicum pepper chemical compound spray. The solution would be easily accessible from any location worldwide, thus ensuring standardization across regions. Using a liquid instead of the powder solution already in use removed the need to reload the canisters after use, increasing safety and productivity for the staff. We spoke to technical specialists and Security Engineering Officers who said that our solution appeared feasible and could be implemented with relative ease. Our problem sponsor loved our idea, indicating it could be a workable real-world solution.


H4Diplomacy was the most rewarding and impactful experience I’ve had in my undergraduate career. The course illuminated a field of public service in a personalized way, enabling me to envision a future for myself that I couldn’t have otherwise. I experienced the unique inner workings of a complex bureaucratic system and wanted to become a part of it. My team visited the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, where we were able to see where previous security systems had been installed to give us a better idea of how ours would work in the real world. We spoke with a Security Technical Specialist in person about our solution and whether it would be feasible.

This was just one of many points of contact with government agencies and personnel that allowed us to delve into the bureaucratic structure and better understand the function of different bureaus and the individual roles within.

Another highlight came when my class and I were invited to present at the Diplomatic Security Headquarters in Rosslyn, VA. Among those attending were Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gentry Smith and Mike Flores, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in San José, Costa Rica, whom we had met during our site visit there.

I met additional people during the course who hold positions I aspire to, and who mentored me with suggested books and opportunities to pursue. This advice and experiences with H4Diplomacy helped me earn a scholarship to attend the Charles B. Rangel summer enrichment program at Howard University this summer, a first for a student from James Madison University. I was also selected to receive the Freeman-ASIA award that will fund my academic exchange at Kyung Hee University in South Korea. This will further advance my goal to serve as a Foreign Service Officer.

H4Diplomacy gave me a greater understanding of what I want to do. I now know without a doubt that a career with the Department of State is what I want to do; and I now have the pathway by which to do it.

Isabella Santos is a senior at James Madison University, double majoring in political science and international affairs with minors in Asian studies and economics. Isabella’s first congressional internship for Congressman Ami Bera developed her passion for U.S. foreign policy and security in the Indo-Pacific region. She’s previously attended student conferences in Indonesia and Japan and participated in an exchange program in South Korea. Isabella also worked on a semester-long project sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service and traveled to the U.S. Embassy in San José, Costa Rica to brief and interview U.S. diplomats and personnel. She regularly participates in diplomacy simulations and is devoted to applying intercultural communication to policy work. Isabella plans to pursue a master’s degree in Asian studies and a career as a Political Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service.

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