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Thoughts for the Beginning of the Academic Year: “Ah-Ha” Moments, Millennials, and Peacebuilding Careers

David J. Smith

August 20, 2020

With the start of the academic year, students will be engaged in pursuing studies designed to better position themselves for careers after graduation. Educators will seek to make the material and topics covered in class relevant for students’ future lives.   A student reflecting “I see where that [lesson, answer, point, topic, analysis, etc.] is important for work as a [fill in the blank], and I think I’d like to do that with my life!” is an important “ah-ha” moment that brings together the theoretical and applied aspects of a learning experience.  In this moment, students see what abstract knowledge can mean in their lives.  When this happens, teachers invariably feel they have had an impact.

The connection between what one studies and one plans as a career is more important today than ever before.   The days when colleges, and even high schools, didn’t need to focus on the labor market because there were always good jobs for smart students are long gone.   While it is still important that broad-based learning continue to be a central feature of education, today career planning must be intentional, and early on students need to recognize that what they study bears significantly on their ability to be successful in the world of work.

The case for career education has been more easily made in fields that have been directly impacted because of the use of social media, Internet-based information acquisition, or the ability to use technology to better organize work that previously was done manually.  Having said this, there are career pathways available where technology is more “assistive” in nature.  Here, technology aids the worker in what he is doing, but the work itself is human relations based and frequently requires engaging one on one with those being served.

Peacebuilding is a field that promotes outcomes that enhance the ability of people to work cooperatively to address global and community challenges.   Though they might not immediately recognize it, the work that many milllennials aspire to is peacebuilding work where human relations based skills are essential.  Careers that seek to alleviate suffering as a result of violence and trauma, promote community-building, resolve differences and conflict, protect the vulnerable from abuse, and promote civic engagement are all peacebuilding related.

Soft Skills

Research shows that the millennial generation is strongly committed to making a contribution to a better world.   Pollster John Zogby has found that millennials care deeply about the world around them and are interested in making social change.[1]  The career paths for would-be “social changers” rest on interpersonal skills sometimes referred to as “soft skills.” Working in teams, succeeding as leaders, communicating (in person) effectively, showing empathy, and problem solving are all human relations based abilities critical to solving the challenges we face today.   Social media and Internet applications can do much, but they can’t replace the personal intimacy necessary to motivate and plan in tackling pressing problems that have put individual health and security at risk.

For students wanting to advance community-building, personal well being, and reduce violence, soft skill development is critical today.   Ensuring that students can apply “humanistic” awareness on a daily basis to advance their work is the key.   But because of the sometimes push to make sure students are technologically competent, these efforts can be easily sidelined.


We are awash in diversity today, not only in our neighborhoods, but also in our places of work.   This diversity is not always represented in how someone might dress, such as in traditional garb or women wearing headscarves, or physical appearance, as in ethnic or racial diversity.  It can include less obvious differences based on age (which we often try to hide), sexual orientation, religion (or lack of religion), social and economic background, and worldviews.  These forms of diversity might not always be apparent in day-to-day work, but can nonetheless influence decisions and outcomes.  In addition, diversity can at times create contention. People working for institutional goals, but working with others from different walks of life, can reach impasses that require the need for skills that promote finding common agreement and resolving conflict.    As workplaces open up to people of varied backgrounds, conflict will increase.  As a result, having skills that can be applied strategically, but sometimes “in the moment,” to seek resolution will be important.   In the future, all occupations will demand that workers be adept at promoting peacebuilding in work settings.   As such, educators should increasingly look for opportunities with students to explore how conflict-sensitive skills can be applied in a field.

New Challenges

Increasingly the range of new challenges that we face in both our local communities and globally will be more nuanced yet complex and require approaches that are novel and demand “thinking outside of the box.”   Bringing together expertise from fields that might at first glance seem unrelated will be critical to reaching holistic strategies to making sustainable social, economic, and political change. Our challenges today, be they in protecting the environment, confronting extremism, or creating security in its various forms, cannot be solved using methods that in the past often demanded force and direct confrontation.   A core aspect of peacebuilding approaches is advancing education to help people understand the consequences of their action, and help them develop new ways and habits of behavior. To do this, we will increasingly need, what writer Daniel Pink (2005) calls, “boundary crossers.”[2]  These are individuals who often develop competency in multiple areas and can apply their knowledge to showing connectivity between fields to promote common objectives. As a result, students will need to develop not only career competency in their field of choice, but also have strong knowledge in what is done in related, and at times, unrelated fields.   Many “ah ha” moments will be needed to prepare workers for tomorrow.

See other posts on Peacebuilding & Conflict Resolution Careers on PCDN including:

Seven Tips for a Conflict Resolution Career

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016).  He can be reached at [email protected] and through his website www.davidjsmithconsulting.com.  He is based in Rockville, Maryland USA.
[1]John Zogby, The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (New York: Random House, 2008).
[2] Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 134.

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