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STUDENTS — This January, 20 Kennedy School students took “Community Recovery” (SUP-607M), which differs from most courses in that they didn’t spend time in the classroom. They were in Chile, working in three communities — Cobquecura, Perales, and Dichato — hard hit by the 8.8 magnitude earthquake of February 2010, which ranks among the most powerful in recorded history.

“We call it an immersive learning experience,” says the instructor, Doug Ahlers, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center and adjunct lecturer in public policy. “We’re taking classroom-learned skills and applying them in a real-world setting where time is short, the stakes are high, and real people are counting on us. In situations like these, I’ve found that Kennedy School students always rise to the occasion.”

Ahlers taught a similar January-term course twice before — in the devastated Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That event inspired him, a former New Orleans resident, to get into the disaster planning and recovery field. Since then, more than 100 Kennedy School students have helped with the recovery of Broadmoor, which is now more than 86 percent rebuilt. Ahlers hopes that he and his students can eventually have a comparable impact on the three Chilean communities.

For the class this January, he picked students with diverse backgrounds in international affairs, community development, economics, education, urban planning, and other fields. The students were divided into three teams, charged with devising an economic recovery plan for the community to which they’d been assigned. While formulating their respective plans, they worked closely with local citizens, business leaders, and politicians.

With a rich Harvard Kennedy School presence in Chile (see footprint), it is perhaps not surprising that a key Chilean government official for earthquake reconstruction is Felipe Kast PHD 2009, formerly minister of planning. “He has been supportive of our work and has spoken to the students as part of the course,” Ahlers says.

The focus is on community-based recovery, Ahlers explains. “It’s not going to be a Harvard plan for Dichato. It’s going to be a Dichato plan for Dichato. We’ll bring in some expertise, but we won’t do it for them. We’ll help them do it themselves, which is an approach that has worked well in Broadmoor.”

Kennedy School students will follow up on this work in courses to be offered this spring and beyond. “We want to see the infrastructure rebuilt in these communities and livelihoods restored,” says Ahlers, noting that in a few years the course participants will probably move on to another disaster in another part of the world: “Unfortunately, these things keep coming.”