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Respecting the Teachable Moment: The Paris Attacks and the Kennesaw State Conflict Management Study Abroad

On November 7, 2015, Dr. Sherrill Hayes, the director of the Masters of Science in Conflict Management Program, led a study abroad trip to Germany.  Six days later, on November 13th, the terrorist attacks happened in Paris. Below, Dr. Hayes offers insight about the relevance of the Conflict Management programs at Kennesaw State as well as personal commentary about leading a study abroad trip during a time of international crisis.

In September 2014 when I first proposed a November 2015 study abroad to examine conflict management, human rights, and migration in Europe, I had my concerns. As I sat deep in discussion with 18 conflict management graduate students late into the evening of November 13, 2015 on the Franco-German border, I had concerns of a different sort.

While no one came out and said it in the fall of 2014, I am certain that a European study abroad seemed less “relevant” than some of its predecessors for the Master of Science in Conflict Management program at Kennesaw State. Northern Ireland, Israel, Cambodia, and Egypt are all places where real, recent, violent conflict had taken place and efforts at peacebuilding and reconciliation were alive and well. Despite my trying to frame European counties, like Germany and France, as places that were not only "real and relevant" to international conflict management but ones that was essential to our students, it still felt more “trip” and less “study”.

In early 2015, my partners at the European Academy at Otzenhausen reached out to me to find out more about my interest and knowledge of migration issues, as more and more Syrian migrants crossed borders into European countries. I have worked on the programmatic aspects of refugee resettlement in the US, primarily by supervising MS and PhD research on this topic, so I dug more deeply into understanding refugee policies and practices across Europe. I found little explicit cooperation among EU member states and even less cross-national discussion between US resettlement agencies and their European counterparts. I shared this with my colleagues and we began to look more closely at these issues and follow the news, which only seemed to get worse.

When November 7, 2015 rolled around and the study abroad began with 18 students from the MS and PhD programs in conflict management, we approached the issues of European integration, human rights, and migration with gusto. Through lectures, role-plays, and field trips to places like the European Court of Human Rights and the European Ombudsman’s Office, the graduate students learned about the complicated governance systems in Europe; the subtle but important differences in the European Union and Council of Europe; discussions about nuclear power and environmental issues among neighboring states; and the requirements and legal implications for signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. We spent most of an exhausting week absorbing as much of this information as we could and were topping it off with two days spent with resettlement workers and a human rights attorney focusing on resettlement on November 13 and 14.

The discussion with the resettlement workers on the morning of the 13th was eye opening. We learned of the limited human resources (e.g. staff and volunteers) and the growing lack of support of resident communities into which refuges are being resettled. On the evening of November 13th, much to the surprise of some of my students, I followed a muted France v. Germany match on TV while I worked in my room.

Later than evening, I got a text from one of the students “Are you watching this?” I assumed that France was surprising Germany on the pitch (they did 2-0), so I looked up from my work to see the scoreline, what I saw was even more surprising. The news was of bombs and shootings in Paris, there was talk of terrorists, rogue refugees, and borders being shut down. This led me to quickly join a group of students already gathered around the TV in the Eurobistro on the campus at the Academy. Students looked stunned, frantically asking questions, quizzing each other on constantly updating social media feeds. Students emailed, called, and reached out to family back home any way they could to assure everyone “we’re alright, far enough away from Paris”.

What I felt deeply was the emotionally tense and cognitively ambivalent mood in the room. While people were glad we were OK, they were equally concerned about our travel plans since we were scheduled to leave on Sunday morning through Frankfurt. Although we all had been deeply engaged in talking academically about developing a European identity through cross-country cooperation and the protection of human rights in the face of conflict based migration of refugees, now it was all very real. Even more real than I could have anticipated all those months ago when this study abroad was nothing more than an idea. This moment, this feeling was at the very core of what we are and why we do what we do as conflict and peace workers, this was the nexus of everything students had been learning for 14 months. So what was I to do?

Sitting in what is described as “the Heart of Europe” during the most significant terrorist attack in Paris in 70 years talking with conflict management graduate students provided me one of the most important teachable moments of my career. Yet, this was not a time to lecture or analyze or deconstruct or refer to course readings or any of the things that professors are “supposed to do”, it was a time to listen and engage with students on a human level. Some needed to vent anger. Some needed to report the breaking news. Some needed to critique the bias in news reports from different sources. Some needed to pray. Some simply needed to sit quietly and soak it all in. Some needed to walk away and deal with it in the morning. All were equally appropriate responses because that is what people have to do when faced with conflict. No one tried to tell anyone else how to feel or what to think, they just experienced it together, knowing there would be time to talk about it tomorrow. I have never been more proud of students than in those hours together.

So when people ask, “What did you do professor, the night of the terrorist attack in Paris?” I can say that I proudly watched my conflict management students turn into conflict professionals and global citizens, because while I knew they were already prepared academically, I saw them practice these lessons in real time. We should all be so privileged to witness that from our students.


Posted: November 30, 2015