Peace and the Community College

Federally funded institute aims to help two-year institutions inject international issues and conflict resolution into their curriculums.
June 29, 2007

In the aftermath of an earthquake and flooding in rural Macedonia this spring, a team of American aid workers rushed to the disaster zone. A small town had been hit particularly hard, its buildings suffering devastating structural damage, its streets filled with wreckage. Working with a team of Macedonians, the Americans negotiated with hostile locals for access to the zone. Living in military barracks, the Americans spent two weeks performing emergency care and recovery, rescuing victims and repairing buildings.

But there was no major natural disaster in Macedonia this spring, nor were there Americans negotiating with belligerents for access to the area. Rather, it was all part of an elaborate final exercise for students from two American colleges and one Macedonian college.

Initiated and organized by Paul Forage, director of the Center for Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Assistance at Indian River Community College, in Ft. Pierce, Fla., the disaster was an expansion of the four-day mock disasters that Forage had created in the forests of central Florida for the last few years.

As a faculty member at a community college in Florida with a limited budget for conferences and travel, Forage said he had “no access” to experts in international relief and government who could help him create a program like the one in Macedonia.

But last year, as one of 18 faculty members and administrators selected for the United States Institute of Peace’s weeklong seminar on international peace and security, Forage was able to meet peers from other community colleges, as well as members of the Washington delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and officials from Macedonia, among other countries. The institute is a federally funded, nonpartisan organization that promotes peace and conflict resolution by providing educational tools in the U.S. and in zones of conflict, as well as support on the ground of international conflicts.

From Hawaii to Maryland, community college faculty and administrators converged on the institute’s Washington headquarters last spring and again this year, from May 29 to June 3, for “Global Peace and Security in Community Colleges and the Communities They Serve,” a series of lectures, simulations and networking events designed to broaden the perspectives and knowledge of faculty and administrators interested in incorporating international issues into their curriculums.

David J. Smith, senior program officer for the institute’s education program and the seminar’s organizer, said participants are “all searching for a way of improving how international conflict and international peace are taught in the classroom … and how to deal with those subjects in a community college.”

One problem that community college faculty and administrators interested in internationalizing their curriculums often face is, Smith said, the “long-held notion that community colleges only do developmental education and teach vocational skills,” and focus narrowly on their regions.

But many community college students are interested in international issues. For the growing numbers of community college students who go on to four-year institutions, international perspectives are important as they continue their studies. And vocational programs to train emergency response workers are increasingly adding courses on international disaster relief.

Forage’s emergency management program at Indian River, for instance, is a vocational program that has taken on an international emphasis. “We study policy, but I’m not training people to be policymakers,” he said. “I’m training them to be operators.” Though many of his students go on to work for local and state emergency operations centers or take similar jobs in the private sector with companies like FedEx, some want to do international aid work and for them, the Macedonian mock disaster was their first hands-on international project.

Before arriving at the institute in 2005, Smith spent 13 years teaching legal studies and conflict resolution at Harford Community College, in northeast Maryland. In addition to organizing the seminar, which is itself a reincarnation of a program that the institute organized for several years in the 1990s and that he attended in 1997, Smith also consults with colleges on how to add peace studies and conflict resolution to their curricula. “Community colleges operate with a lot of isolation,” he said, so they need someone from the outside to help them develop new programs.

While the results of the institute’s education programs are “hard to measure nationally, they are significant on a college by college basis,” Smith said, listing successful programs at Austin Community College in Texas, Minneapolis Community and Technical College in Minnesota and Montgomery College in Maryland.

Judy Irwin, director of international programs and services for the American Association of Community Colleges, who spoke at last year's seminar, said that because her office focuses on creating study abroad programs and attracting international students to American community colleges, the seminar "helps, doing something we don't have the resources to do."

The seminar provides the support that many community college faculty members lack. Often, Smith said, community colleges have “one of everything -- one political scientist, one sociologist, one historian -- but not more than one,” meaning that experts are without colleagues on their own campuses. At the seminar, participants were able to interact with peers with similar academic interests, networking with faculty who live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their colleges.

In the year since he attended the seminar, John Tigue, dean of liberal arts at Baton Rouge Community College, in Louisiana, has introduced new courses into his college’s global studies concentration, including a class on the philosophy of religion and another on "intercultural speech." Art class curriculums have been adjusted to include more art that's non-western.

Tigue has also overseen the revision of all departments’ mission statements to have a more global perspective, created a language lab with 30 computers and software in 18 languages, and adopted new textbooks for French and Spanish language classes that incorporate cultural elements. The college offered four levels of French and Spanish during an intensive month-long immersion program in May, and this summer, students will travel to study abroad programs in Germany and Great Britain.

Although he had many ideas for the globalization of Baton Rouge’s offerings, Tigue said that it was not until he went to the seminar that he found “momentum” to make his ideas reality. “The seminar made me go from just thinking about these things that I thought were pretty good to getting a sense that my ideas were similar to other peoples’ and that they could be put in place,” he said. “It also gave me lots of new ideas and lots of intellectual energy.”

Other participants also said that the seminar helped them validate their own curricular ideas and gave them credibility when proposing change to other faculty and administrators on their campuses. Anthony Perry, an instructor in academic education and social science at Henry Ford Community College, in Dearborn, Mich., said that the institute “recognizes and legitimizes what we’re doing at the community college level.”

Perry is planning a “Global Issues Month” for November, which will include speakers as well as opportunities for students to discuss cultural issues with students elsewhere in the United States and around the world.

Henry Ford, he said, is “the first stop,” not only for workers laid off by Ford and other auto makers but also for immigrants who have just arrived in the United States, especially the large Arab population in the Detroit suburbs. Students at Henry Ford are from at least 56 countries.

When classes began last August, Perry said, students “came to my classroom straight from Lebanon,” where a war with Israel had displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees during July and early August.

After having attended the seminar a few months earlier, Perry knew to be sensitive to the traumas in some of his students’ pasts and to help his students understand each other. “There are a lot of stereotypes about Arabs in America -- and lots of stereotypes about people of every other background in my classes, too,” he said. “So I try to ask myself and my students, ‘How do you bridge those divides?’”

At Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, Andrew Reyes, an English as a second language professor, tackles the same sorts of issues. “When you have a class with a huge number of immigrants, you can’t just teach as if your class is all white, middle class,” he said. “Our students bring so many things into the classroom and professors have to take their students’ lives into account when teaching them.”

Though he attended the seminar less than a month ago, Reyes said he is working to create a major in conflict resolution or peace studies at Bunker Hill, as well as a “think tank -- an ongoing forum for people to discuss their cultures and languages.” He is also applying for doctoral programs, hoping to leverage his “eye opening” experience at the seminar into a spot in graduate school.


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