Building Peace from the Ground Up

By Christopher P. Sarachilli | February 2, 2016

Arcadia’s IPCR program addresses global conflict, offers a new approach to viewing conflict

By Lini S. Kadaba

Ayuen Ajok ’11M was born into war.

The 32-year-old has known devastating conflict for more than half of his life, first in his native South Sudan, then in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. This life of unrest and brutal civil war that claimed his father and three brothers has led Ajok to a mission of peace.

“I knew my country was destroyed by the conflict,” he says. “I wanted to be part of the change, part of rebuilding South Sudan.”

Ajok, one of the more than 20,000 displaced or orphaned children known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, is a graduate of Arcadia University’s innovative International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) master’s program.

The two-year degree (to be streamlined to 18 months starting in 2016-17) uses a project-based approach to school participants in both theory and practice. New-learned skills are put to use at nonprofits such as the Ronald McDonald House and Schools for Sustainability (founded by Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso ’12 and Jacquelyn Crutchley ’13; see Spring/Summer 2015 issue) and through trips to post-conflict zones such as Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Turkey, and elsewhere.

In a world with its share of conflict, real-time case studies are just headlines away. The protracted Syrian Civil War serves as backdrop for Post-Conflict Reconstruction, a course that explores the challenges of rebuilding as conflicts drag on and issues on the ground continually change.

We’re trying to train students to act upon the world in a different way than it has been acted on.


“This course is about how people work toward peace in the absence of formal peace,” says Dr. Samer N. Abboud, an associate professor of International Studies who teaches IPCR courses. “We’re trying to train students to act upon the world in a different way than it has been acted on.”

Graduates of IPCR have a commitment to social justice, according to Dr. Amy S. Cox ’01M, director of IPCR and an assistant professor of Political Science who was in IPCR’s first graduating class.

“There’s no shortage of need for people who have the skills that we’re providing,” she says.

In 2015, Ajok got a short-term contract as a research assistant and economist for the World Bank in its Washington, D.C., office, focusing on job creation and income equality in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, he completed a master’s degree program from Cornell University, concentrating on international development.

While his job contract ended in July 2015, Ajok has reapplied to the World Bank and investigated other sectors while staying in Oreland, Pa. Working long-term at an international organization focused on sustainable development would be a dream opportunity for him—one that could lead him back home to South Sudan.

The seeds for Ajok’s ambitious goal were planted and nurtured at Arcadia.

“I was able to understand why conflict exists and what causes it,” he says. “It taught me a lot about nation building—how you can rebuild a nation that has been destroyed.”

Invaluable Experience

A hallmark of Arcadia’s program is the requirement of an international experience through study away or an internship that, in large part, sets IPCR apart from the hundreds of other undergraduate and graduate programs in this growing discipline.

Craig Zelizer, chief executive officer of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network in Washington, D.C., describes Arcadia’s field study requirement as “unique” among peace and conflict resolution programs.

“I think it’s invaluable,” Zelizer says. “There is no substitute for on-the-ground, meaningful field experience.”

Jay Glinka ’16 echoes that. He says the international academic experiences in Northern Ireland and Turkey opened his eyes. “It has allowed a way for me to step outside of myself to humanize and personalize conflicts that textbooks and readings can’t truly achieve,” says the 28-year-old Baltimore native who aspires to work for Doctors Without Borders.  

Ajok also made several field studies. In Northern Ireland, he learned about the long history of “the troubles” with the British. In Costa Rica, Ajok and his classmates raised questions about plans for the internationally funded Boruca Dam Project that would displace indigenous populations. He also spent a semester in Arusha, Tanzania, where he studied the workings of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based there and researched peace and security in the region.

“I was able to understand conflicts from different perspectives,” Ajok says. “During those trips, I had an opportunity to interview conflict resolution practitioners in order to understand how they resolve conflicts that emerged in their societies.”

I was able to understand why conflict exists and what causes it. It taught me a lot about nation building—how you can rebuild a nation that has been destroyed.

Those experiences have not only helped him make sense of what happened in the former Southern Sudan, but also find ways forward.

On May 16, 1983, the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out when the non-Muslim population living in the southern part of this north African country rebelled against an oppressive government intent on imposing Sharia Law and taking control of oil fields in the south. Ajok was born four months later near Juba.

As a child, his parents sent him to live with his grandmother in the countryside, considered safer than the larger cities. Eventually, conflict spread there, too. One evening, when Ajok was 5 years old and playing with friends, he heard gunshots. “People were running in different directions,” he says. “People were screaming.”

He hid with others in the forest. “I was scared,” he says. “I seen people shot. I seen people die. I seen houses getting burned down.”

He walked by night for nearly two months to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Some 27,000 children, most without parents, landed in the camp, where cholera quickly claimed many lives. When civil war broke out in Ethiopia in 1991, many refugees were caught in the crossfire. Ajok was forced to return to Southern Sudan, crossing the Gila River at the border, where many children perished when Ethiopian rebels opened fire.

In South Sudan, the government was bombing the region, and there was little food available. As civil war intensified in Sudan, Ajok fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. There he began going to school for the first time. “Most of the classes were under a tree,” he says. “We wrote on the ground. We didn’t have books.”

During this time, he assumed his parents and siblings had perished in the war. In 1999, he was resettled in Lansdale, Pa., among the first Lost Boys to find safe haven in the United States.

The Philadelphia suburb was nothing like his impression of America based on “Charlie’s Angels,” he says. But Ajok found his way, playing sports in high school, earning a degree in business and economics from Temple University in 2008, and ultimately seeking a way to better understand his own and his country’s experiences with conflict through Arcadia’s IPCR. In 2007, he discovered that his mother and some of his siblings had survived the war.

“Conflict is something we create so we can discriminate against people,” says Ajok. “The only solution is for people to accept other people and share what you have, to come with an idea of love.”

A Commitment to Global Issues

While the earliest academic programs in conflict resolution date to the 1950s, the field took off with the end of the Cold War. Arcadia’s program began in 1999 and has grown to about 40 master’s students a year.  

“Arcadia has had, in particular, a commitment to global issues, a commitment to global awareness that lends itself nicely to creating an International Peace and Conflict Resolution program,” Dr. Cox says. “It was at the forefront of understanding the importance and relevance, even here in Glenside, of global conflict and how that affected everyday life.”

Now the program is undergoing restructuring “to keep in line with the changing nature of our field,” she says. Besides taking less time, thereby costing less in tuition, it will feature new concentrations in advocacy, activism and social justice, and NGO management and social entrepreneurship.

“We are approaching building peace from the grassroots, from the ground up,” Dr. Cox says. “We are giving students a toolbox of skills they can use in any situation.”

A New Approach to Viewing Conflict

Like Ajok, Constance Teage ’14M has witnessed the horrors of conflict. She survived three brutal wars in Liberia from 1989 to 1996.

“I saw my country totally destroyed,” she says. “I saw children used as soldiers. I saw atrocities that no child should ever have to see.”

Teage, 30, migrated to the United States in 1997 as a refugee, but in her heart knew she wanted to return to Liberia and help with governance issues. With that goal in mind, she pursued IPCR. As she says, “working in peace and conflict resolution is personal to me as a war survivor.” Arcadia’s program was particularly attractive because she could tailor it to her interests.

Besides field trips to Northern Ireland, Serbia, and Kosovo, she was able to intern in Sierra Leone and conduct research in her native Liberia, “all valuable experiences that are helping me with the work I do now.”

In Sierra Leone she worked with ActionAid and advocated for reformation of the constitution to include rights for women. Over the summer, Teague moved to Monrovia, Liberia, for a program manager position with the Sustainable Development Institute. There, she advocates for the passage of the Land Rights Act, which will give rural Liberians, in particular, the right to own land occupied by their ancestors. 

“All the lessons I learned, the classes I took, and the field experiences during my IPCR time have been so essential for the work that I do.” Classes in conflict mediation, she says, have helped her speak with purpose and find solutions without escalating the situation. She uses her courses in NGO management to seek out and oversee grants.

“I absolutely love the work that I’m doing,” she says. “I had a desire to return home and work in rebuilding the country and resolving conflicts that could potentially lead to future outbreaks of violence, and I am doing exactly that now.”

William K. Kuhn ’14M also praises IPCR for its flexibility. Through the Post-Conflict Governance and State Building course, he traveled to Serbia and Kosovo. There, Kuhn conducted an analysis that identified gaps in the Kosovo Police Service’s attempt to integrate ethnic Serbs. He was able to present those ideas to political leaders and later published his recommendations in the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Journal Online through the U.S. Army War College, where he interned.

At first, Kuhn, 32, may seem an unlikely candidate for IPCR. After all, he was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why would he pursue peace studies?

“I wanted a new approach to viewing conflict,” he says. “I wanted perspectives that examined how to end conflict, or the drivers for conflict, rather than analyzing how to win at war.”

While Kuhn has no regrets regarding his time of military service, he feels an obligation to balance the ledger, to do something about human suffering after “having been an instrument of war that exacted violence on others.”

I believe IPCR allows you to wrestle with uncomfortable topics surrounding conflict and supports you as you work through that evolution.

“IPCR helped me care for myself,” he says. “It assisted me in confronting my own trauma both as a veteran and through the personal loss of my sister. I believe IPCR allows you to wrestle with uncomfortable topics surrounding conflict and supports you as you work through that evolution.”

Since graduation, Kuhn has entered the selective Presidential Management Fellows Program, a federal government leadership development program that rotates fellows through different departments. After working for FEMA in Oakland, Calif., he recently began six months in the Maritime Administration’s Office of International Activities in Washington, D.C., where he serves as a trade specialist.

IPCR, Kuhn says, teaches its graduates to ask why and how a conflict arises.

“Day and night, you are engaged in the world of destabilization, death, hurt, arguments, and disagreements, but you’re also discovering new ways to address those challenges,” he says. “IPCR is a field that is not just trying to understand a topic, but rather it’s trying to impact, influence, and change how we interact with conflict situations to make progress toward peace.” 

Lini S. Kadaba is a journalist based in Newtown Square, Pa., and a frequent contributor.