George Mason Undergraduates Primarily Look to Indicators of Diversity to Define their Everyday Peace
At the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (SCAR) we often ask ourselves about how peace can be achieved in communities around the world. In classrooms, students and faculty alike focus on an array of domestic and international conflicts, but discussions of peace and conflict within the George Mason University community itself are not often a focus. Dr. Pamina Firchow, one of the principal investigators of the Everyday Peace Indicators project (EPI), was curious about the concept of peace at George Mason. To that end, we conducted focus groups with members of the George Mason community at the Fairfax campus and asked them: “What does peace mean to you at George Mason University?”
The Everyday Peace Indicators project aims to understand how community members define peace through the development of their own indicators of peace in order for them to solve their own conflicts in a way that makes sense to them. The EPI team has applied this model to help communities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Colombia, and now George Mason University.
Recruiting students to participate in the focus groups was somewhat difficult. Many students simply walked past the recruiting tables we had set up in the weeks prior to the focus groups. Furthermore, they did not seem to grasp the concept of everyday indicators until they spent time discussing the issues in focus groups. However, Some students approached us asking for clarification and upon realizing they would get a chance to discuss their lives at Mason, they suddenly felt more intrigued.
Despite earlier difficulties with recruitment, each of the four initial focus groups was composed of 8 to 12 students from diverse backgrounds, ages, and majors. Professor Firchow asked participants to really think about peace in their daily lives and provide examples of what brings them peace or what takes away from it. Students were quick to build off from each other’s answers as they discussed their common experiences on campus. One such example included the timely notification emails they receive from the university when a sexual assault has happened on campus. Students talked about how those emails affected campus wide peace, but also how it affected peace on a personal level. Participants, thus, discussed their fears regarding sexual assault on campus, while at the same time, discussing the reassurance the university provided them through timely notifications, which allow students to stay informed. Furthermore, departments are pledging to end sexual violence and campus police are available to escort individuals who feel unsafe.
Most students agreed that more information made them feel safer and gave them peace of mind. Students talked about how follow up emails on the different sexual assault cases would be helpful. This topic is one that students had been discussing with their friends or thinking about and, therefore, they seemed to easily relate it to the question of daily peace.
Indicators relating to diversity, however, were by far the most prominent in bringing students peace on campus. Diversity at George Mason University is something that students feel comforted by. Students discussed how they felt they could be themselves on campus and pursue their identities in an array of ways because everywhere around them there are people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political affiliations, and there is space to get to know all these different people in and outside of the classroom. Students brought up how the benches that student organizations paint every year in front of the library bring them peace as they walk on campus. George Mason University has hundreds of student run organizations and there is something for everyone.
The conversation on diversity took a protective tone when discussing preachers who come to campus. While a diversity of ideas and people on campus was celebrated, people felt that the language preachers use on campus was harmful and took away from feelings of peace on campus. Students dislike how the preacher says students will go to hell and how he yells loudly outside of the main student hub, the Johnson Center. Many students think preachers who say things like this should be removed from campus. The university has listened to students and released an email explaining that, as a public institution, freedom of speech must be respected and encouraged students to engage respectfully or walk away.
Other concepts that could affect daily student peace were not so quickly mentioned. When Dr. Firchow asked about how economics affect the daily peace of students there were some moments of silence and very different experiences were shared. While college students at Mason can all relate to rising tuition costs, parking pass rates, and debt, they all experience these costs in different ways. For some students tuition hindered their daily peace at Mason while others were less affected. The conversation on economic stability led to another topic that affects daily peace for students, support systems. Some students have the support of their family when it comes to finances, while others only have emotional support. People talked about support not only from family but from friends on campus, RA’s, student advisers, and professors, all of which really added to their daily peace at Mason.
After the four focus groups were done discussing their various indicators of peace, they were invited to come and verify their common indicators. Dr. Firchow compiled long lists of indicators from every focus group. In an indicator verification exercise, students were then able to narrow and vote on them at the final session which was composed of the four focus groups and additional students who hadn’t participated in the initial exercise. This ensured that indicators were as representative as possible of the George Mason community and provided the basis of the indicator categorization and analysis provided in Table 1.