Becoming a Better Peacemaker
Dana Oleskiewicz, a Kent State University doctoral student in cultural foundations, said she signed on for the study abroad program, the Kigali Summer Institute, to learn about marginalized communities in her quest to pursue mediation skills.
The institute embodies the course, "Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi," and this year coincided with the Kent State-sponsored conference, “Peace Education in an Era of Crisis,” which Kigali Summer Institute students attended.
With the U.S. political climate becoming increasingly contentious, Oleskiewicz of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, believes calm voices who can offer mediation and help to restore peace within our communities are badly needed.
“That’s quite frankly, why I decided to go back to school to get a Ph.D., to step into this arena and be able to offer facilitation in that,” she said. “You know, I’ve done a lot in my career, but I think it is definitely needed right now, especially in marginalized communities.”
The Kigali Summer Institute caught her attention because of her interest in peace and conflict studies classes, including mediation. “That’s why this particular study abroad experience appealed to me,” she said.
The course far exceeded her expectations, she said.
“I knew that we would learn about peace and conflict by attending the international conference and that our travels would highlight the Genocide Against the Tutsi. I anticipated gaining an awareness of historical contexts and the technical aspects of implementing peace and conflict measures within communities.
“What I didn’t realize is that we would experience deeply emotional connections to what we learned. Even the informal interactions, particularly with the University of Rwanda students, were valuable in that I gained a greater appreciation for other cultures and how best to engage for maximum understanding.”
While the highlights of the trip included traveling into the Rwandan countryside and enjoying a safari at Akagera National Park and visits with local governments and organizations, the best part of the experience for Oleskiewicz was the people.
“The greatest highlight for me was doing so within a diverse group of people, including our new Rwandan friends, willing to exchange ideas, listen to each other, explore the country, share emotional experiences and learn together,” she said. “The group of KSU students that went this year were from many different fields of study. That diversity added to the positive experience as we explored together.”
Oleskiewicz said she was impressed by the immersive educational opportunities.
“The idea of forgiveness and reconciliation was at the forefront of what we learned about the genocide. I found myself reflecting on my ability to offer grace to others, as a process. Witnessing those journeys in the Rwanda villages that had been impacted by such violence was transformative for me in how I view personal conflict in my own life,” she said.
Oleskiewicz already earned two Kent State degrees – a bachelor’s degree in biology and secondary education in 1992, and a master’s degree in aquatic ecology in 1998. She spent the first half of her career working in water resources and non-profit management.
“I was doing a lot of facilitating with community groups doing community-based decision-making around land use, so that’s the skill set that I now bring to my doctorate program, working on cultural foundations of education.
Once her doctoral degree is complete, Oleskiewicz is considering teaching at the university level.
“I’m interested in marginalized communities and violence against marginalized community members, specifically the LGBTQ community, which is why the Rwanda trip was of interest to me,” she said.
In addition, the three-week course in the summer worked well for her family, which includes three children, one of whom is also a student at Kent State, studying art and psychology in pursuit of a career as an art therapist.
“Kent State is a great school. I went to Kent as an undergraduate because my mom worked on campus, so by virtue of the tuition benefit. But once I got there, I realized it was a top-notch program in the sciences. I was working with professors who were well-known worldwide for the work they do in lake management,” she said.
For education abroad, Oleskiewicz recommends the Kigali Summer Institute to anyone “interested in learning more about other cultures, the principles of peace and conflict and themselves as knowledge seekers.”
Kent State University has offered the education abroad course, “Rwanda After the Genocide Against the Tutsi,” since 2019. Known as the Kigali Summer Institute, the course takes place over three weeks in Rwanda in July.
Developed and taught by Sarah Schmidt, Ph.D., an instructor in the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and assistant director of global education initiatives at Kent State University at Stark, the study trip explores the reconstruction of Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which more than 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by the government-backed Hutu tribe. The course explores issues related to peace and conflict in the context of the country’s history, with students from the University of Rwanda also taking part.