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Undergrads Are Key Players in Peace Institute


For the second year in a row, college senior James Souder has a summer job that wins him friends from dozens of countries.

They are men and women aged 20 to 90 who do things on behalf of peace and justice like mediate between warring soldiers and live among suffering refugees in camps.

Souder is one of four 1990-born undergraduates at EMU who are “community assistants” in the main dormitory building occupied by participants in EMU’s 2012 Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

Souder’s no slouch – he is a gifted singer and an expert photographer (see the SPI photo galleries!) and is majoring in environmental studies, plus carrying four minors – but he says his accomplishments pale beside those of the people he meets on his SPI job.

Mixing with peacebuilders from around the globe

He points to 74-year-old Lilian Burlando, pictured to the left with her grandson, whom she brought with her to SPI in 2010. Lilian is a clinical psychologist who journeyed to SPI in 2011 and 2012 from the southernmost tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Leymah Gbowee and her son Joshua, an EMU undergrad. Leymah received the Nobel Prize in 2011 for her work in organizing a peace movement to end the Second Liberian Civil War. Encouraged by colleagues in West Africa who had been educated at EMU, Leymah first came to campus in 2004 for Summer Peacebuilding Institute and returned for training in Strategies in Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) in 2005. In 2007 she finished her master’s degree in conflict transformation at EMU. Learn more about Leymah’s Nobel Peace Prize.

She also came in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

This year she came alone, but on two occasions she enrolled alongside one of her five children or 19 grandchildren. (One of her daughters, a prosecuting attorney in Argentina, has attended SPI twice, in 2007 and 2011.)

“Lilian is one of the most engaging people you could ever meet,” said Souder, who follows over 60 SPI friends on Facebook.

When Souder learned that Burlando loves choral music, he arranged for her to attend performances of the acclaimed Eastern Mennonite High School touring choir and the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir. Burlando squeezed in these activities on top of her usual active participation in all-day classes and in SPI-wide lectures, meals, and international dances. In her home community, Burlando is the founding director of the Centro de Estudio y Meditacion (Center for Study and Meditation).

SPI work strengthens cross-cultural experience

Souder spent his mandatory EMU cross-cultural experience in the Middle East in the spring of 2011, leaving him with a special spot in his heart for SPI participants from that region.

He loved getting to know Nettie Pardue in May 2012, a California woman who leads Outward Bound trips that brings Israelis and Palestinians together for an extended sojourn in wilderness settings. And he worries about the volatile home-country situation of the four Lebanese students he recently met.

“When I returned from the Middle East, I was so grateful for the hospitality that was given to me,” he said. “I try to reciprocate by extending hospitality to people coming here.”

Souder and his fellow community assistants – Alli Eanes, Josh Kanagy, and Jamila Witmer – take shifts being available 24 hours a day by telephone to assist the students at SPI, some of whom are in a foreign setting for the first time in their lives. Common concerns are how to phone home (pre-paid telephone cards are best), where to get familiar foods (some items can be found in local food stores), and how to work the laundry machines in the dormitory (start with having the right change).

Sometimes assigned roommates don’t mesh, and the community assistants provide mediation, working with the SPI housing coordinator – this year it’s 2010 EMU grad Kate Bergey – on a resolution. Souder works at being equally helpful to high officials in foreign governments and in organizations like the United Nations and to grassroots workers who serve the poorest of the poor.

And then there’s his photography. James works with EMU staff photographers to compile photo galleries for the EMU website. He also works with SPI co-director Bill Goldberg on a selection of printed photos each participant is gifted with as a memory of their time at EMU and in SPI classes.

“James does it out of a love of photography and his pictures are proof,” says Goldberg.

Undergrads fill out the ranks of SPI staff

In addition to the four community assistants, two other undergraduates are on the SPI staff – Kiersten Rossetto focuses on transportation to and from airports and other locations, and Louise Babikow is assigned to a residential unit that houses visiting instructors and guest lecturers.

“On the SPI evaluation forms, we get lots of compliments on our student staff,” says SPI co-director Valerie Helbert. “They play key roles in creating the kind of welcoming atmosphere that SPI is renowned for.”

Learn more about peacebuilding at EMU

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