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Peace Studies Program Offers Undergrads a Path to Making a Difference in a World of Conflict

By Richard LeComte 

An overwhelming number of conflicts seem to be breaking out all over the world. They range from the Syrian civil war and the rekindled war between Armenia and Azerbaijan to protests over police actions in the United States. Enter Jesse C. Johnson, director of the Peace Studies Program in the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts & Sciences. The idea of bringing resolution – and peace -- to hostile environments spurs a host of topics for classes and research.  

“The purpose of the Peace Studies Program is to introduce students to what research has to say about how to reduce conflict in the world and to leverage the research to sort out what the most effective policies are going to be to stop governments and people from resorting to violence,” said Johnson, associate professor of political science. “We can’t ignore the fact that groups can use violence to achieve their goals. The Peace Studies Program hopes to teach students how to identify policies and strategies that can incentivize groups to pursue their goals through nonviolent means.”  

Begun in 2013, the Peace Studies Program has accumulated more than 30 certificate recipients. To earn the certificate, students need to take Introduction to Peace Studies and the Peace Studies Capstone Seminar as well as two electives. The classes include a wide range of topics, including developing leadership, offering mediation and promoting understanding.  

“The program addresses various forms of violence that we see across the globe,” Johnson said. “We cover things like war and terrorism, but also human rights violations committed by governments against their citizens, such as torture and police brutality. All of these topics fall under the umbrella of Peace Studies.” 

The certificate draws students from several disciplines; the program allows them to study in-depth an area of particular interest.  

“I took the Introduction to Peace Studies class when I was a sophomore,” said Emma Goldsby, a UK political science and Islamic studies student from Dublin, Ohio. “I really enjoyed the class, and I joined the program. I have been able to focus on human rights issues, terrorism, and the inter-workings of war and conflict. That is all connected to Peace Studies.”  

Goldsby said the program has opened many doors for her, such as her recent internship with a federal agency.  

Johnson stresses the fact that the Peace Studies discipline involves quantitative as well as qualitative research into what escalates – and de-escalates – a conflict between groups or nations.  

“Society largely accepts the fact that research can tell us stuff about health, economics, and the environment,” Johnson said. “However, one thing that’s less widely understood is that we also have a large body of research about peace and conflict resolution that could be utilized to avoid deadly conflicts. We have extensive data on different forms of violence that help us sort out what has historically kept the peace in the face of competing interests.” 

As he’s teaching the introductory class, Johnson finds that students are interested in several hot spots around the world. They may find a topic fascinating if they find a personal connection to it.  

“Students are interested in Peace Studies for a variety of reasons. Some students have been directly affected by political violence or have family members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others are just motivated by a desire to stop the death and destruction they see in the news or learn about in their courses at UK” he said. “For example, many students are interested in the complex dynamics generated by the civil war in Syria. Or they’re interested in what’s going to happen with North Korea, given Kim Jong-un's constant provocations. They are also shocked to learn about ongoing humanitarian crises, like what is happening with the Rohingya in Myanmar.” 

Sloan Lansdale, a Political Science and International Studies major from Mount Sterling, Kentucky, is using the certificate to deepen her exploration of what leads to genocide and how peacekeeping can prevent such atrocities.  

“My Peace Studies classes have been my favorite classes,” she said. “They’ve led me in the direction I’m pursuing now. You can tailor your Peace Studies experience to what your interests are. I’m really interested in conflict resolution, wars, terrorism and the mechanisms behind wars. So, I’m able to tailor my course choices to those interests.” 

Johnson also sees the program as a vital part in the professional development of Peace Studies students.  

“People are seeing the practicality of the program, particularly with regards to internships,” he said. “Students have gotten some pretty high-profile internships, such as positions in the State Department and the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, that will help them obtain careers after their time at UK. We also stress the research component, because having hard skills is key to succeeding in a very competitive job environment.” 

Plus, the intimacy of the program, drawing students with common interests, embroiders their experience of liberal learning.  

“I enjoy having a smaller cohort of peers who are interested in the same things I am,” Lansdale said. “I’m able to connect with other young people who are passionate about researching the same things.” 

And extracurricular opportunities provide a great deal of space for academic growth as well.  

“Each semester, at least before Covid, the faculty would bring in a speaker, and members of the Peace Studies program were able to sit down with the speakers before they gave their talk and have a small discussion and lunch with them,” Goldsby said. “It was really nice to have those opportunities and grow those connections, which are really helping me as I’m applying to graduate school.”  

But research into the practical nuts and bolts of reducing conflict – and, ultimately, forging peace -- remains at the heart of the program, Johnson said. 

“Our students learn what specific policies research suggests will be successful at enhancing peace and what the limitations or drawbacks of those policies are,” he said. “They learn how we can use evidence to sort out the tradeoffs associated with a given policy and, ultimately, create a plan for conflict resolution that can be effective at reducing the violence we see across the globe.”