European Site Visits, Part III: Mons, Belgium and our NATO Practicum

My next stop was Mons, Belgium for a trip to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Mons is home to NATO’s Allied Command Transformation Staff Element Europe (ACT SEE). It is also home to our NATO Practicum, a unique partnership between St. John’s and NATO.


With the emphasis shifting toward experiential learning in American legal education, St. John’s entered into a formal agreement with NATO to send law students to Mons, Belgium to work for Allied Command Transformation Staff Element Europe (ACT SEE). Currently in its fifth semester of operation, the partnership provides St. John’s students with the opportunity to extern at a major international organization while providing NATO with American law students to assist with legal work.

The NATO Practicum provides a highly motivated, successful student with the opportunity to spend 5 months working at ACT SEE under the supervision of NATO attorneys for an academic semester. Students can apply in the fall of their second year, and may be selected for the Practicum as second-semester 2Ls or during 3L. Below are some of the major highlights:

  • Students receive 13 academic credits for the semester, ensuring that they do not fall behind their classmates while working abroad;
  • Students satisfy both the advanced writing requirements: they satisfy the Advanced Practical Writing Requirement (APWR) through numerous legal memos on NATO-related issues and they satisfy the Advanced Scholarly Writing Requirement (ASWR) through a detailed piece of scholarship on an area of interest to the student and NATO;
  • Students receive a SECRET security clearance, valid for up to five (5) years. [I’ve been told by multiple students that this alone is worth doing the NATO Practicum];
  • Students work under the direct supervision of Sherrod Lewis Bumgardner, Legal Advisor at NATO Allied Transformation Staff Element Europe;
  • Students spend a semester in Europe!

The NATO Practicum launched when I was a 2L, and I remember being upset that I was unable to participate in the inaugural selection for my 3L fall. So I was excited to have the opportunity to visit our current NATO Practicum student (Shaun) and see how he is enjoying his semester.


I spent the morning getting caught up on our Shaun’s progress, as well as big-picture comments about the first five semesters of the partnership. In addition to sending students to NATO each year, St. John’s collaborated with NATO on a cyberconflict symposium in 2013 and we continue to work on ways to deepen the partnership. But for that day, my major focus was on tracking St. John’s students at NATO. I received wonderful news on Shaun’s engagement and found out some of the wonderful opportunities he was being afforded as part of the Practicum.

Shaun gets to shadow NATO legal advisors on a day-to-day basis, and hearing about the (non-confidential) meetings that he’s been in was fascinating. Shaun is part of a team that provides legal advice to multiple NATO sub-groups, including the Joint Warfare Centre (JWC) and Joint Force Training Centre (JFTC). In addition to the legal work our students do, they also get to take a lead role in the editing and production of the NATO Legal Gazette, an educational outreach publication. They also play an active role in legal research for NATO’s Comprehensive Legal Overview Virtual Information System (CLOVIS), an operational concept to enhance the sharing of legal knowledge within the NATO community of interest and with its nations and partners.


After a morning of evaluations with Sherrod and Petra Ochmannova (Dr. Ochmannova works as Deputy Legal Advisor at ACT SEE. She is posted as the VNC from the Ministry of Defense of the Czech Republic), the four of us had a wonderful lunch on the base. We were the only civilians in a dining hall full of uniformed officers. After lunch, I had a chance to sit down with Shaun for a few hours and really get a sense of what he does on a day-to-day basis. Shaun told me everything (non-confidential) that future NATO Practicum students need to know, including: what classes to take (Public International Law, Law & Military Operations), what extracurricular activities to be part of (Jessup International Moot Court Competition), what is the best benefit of the Practicum (getting a SECRET security clearance), and what his favorite part of the Practicum is (having the ability to learn from Lewis and Petra daily and have such a diverse group of friends). He told me that he enjoys working with people from all over the world and that he gets to sit in on some meetings he would otherwise never dream of being involved in. Shaun takes language classes after work, and utilizes the library and gym on the base.


We then toured the base and spent some time talking about career plans and life in Europe. I repeatedly let him know how jealous I was of his opportunity, and he shared some great stories about the networking opportunities he’s had at NATO and his adventures over the course of the semester. After a full day at NATO, I got on the train for the final leg of my trip. The Hague was next, but not before a delay in Brussels. Jetlagged and tired, but I had two more students to visit, and my old home to visit.




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