The following article was written by Kroc School Master’s in Peace and Justice student Minh-Thu Mai. It originally ran on the website of the Kroc School at the University of San Diego.
As a 28-year-old Special Education teacher in my fifth year of teaching, I saw so many issues with our educational system — the lack of funding, the struggle between doing what’s best for our students and being compliant with district rules, and the lack of support staff for the students, to name a few — but I couldn’t do much about it. As a teacher, I only had control over what went on in my classroom. Educational policies largely dictated what I could and could not do to help my students, so I began looking for ways to learn to better advocate for my students and other children with disabilities.
Through my research, I found the Master of Arts in Peace and Justice (MAPJ) program at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. Looking at the course guide, which emphasized theory and practice, I found myself particularly drawn to the hands-on, practice-based aspects of the program, from the practicum classes offered in Rwanda and Colombia to the required summer internship. From a master’s program, I wanted experience that would build my knowledge and skills, and ultimately better prepare me to advance my career as an educator and peacebuilder. I started the MAPJ program in Fall 2018, and got right to work.
Seeing Social Innovation in Action Firsthand in Rwanda
During my first semester, I took an International Justice and Human Rights course, and upon learning more about a related practicum focused in Rwanda, I knew I had to sign up for it. Why? There’s nowhere better to learn about human rights than in a country that is doing very well recovering from one of the worst human rights violations in recent history.
Interestingly, the practicum focused heavily on social innovation, not just human rights, and I was surprised by the connections between these two aspects of peacebuilding — connections I had never thought about before, but was excited to learn about. That’s one of the things I’ve come to love about my master’s at the Kroc School: the cross-discipline learning. Even as a student of peace and justice, I’m exposed to other disciplines like social innovation, which are making me a more capable and well-rounded changemaker.
In January 2019, the practicum started. For almost a week and a half, about a dozen of my peers and I made the long journey to Kigali, Rwanda, with Kroc School Professor Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick. We visited half a dozen different social innovation businesses, both local and foreign-owned. We got to hear directly from Rwandan social innovators — an experience that would have been very hard to replicate in the classroom — and learned that a sharp increase in foreign business in Rwanda was part of President Kagame’s plan to ensure peace and order in the country through revitalizing the country’s economy. The thinking was that no one would advocate for violence — the kind of genocidal violence Rwanda experienced over two decades ago — if everyone had a nice, comfortable livelihood at stake.
All the local Rwandans we talked to told us their standard of living had improved dramatically under President Kagame — universal health care, electricity available all day long, running water to their homes, and clean and paved roads throughout the city. However, as a trade-off, Rwandans had to give up some of their civil and political rights. For example, public discussion of ethnicity — Hutu and Tutsi — was banned by the government, and President Kagame had been in office for almost two decades with his rivals jailed for inciting “ethnic violence”.
So for me, Rwanda presented a very intriguing dilemma: peace and order versus democracy and rights. If Rwandans were satisfied (are they actually satisfied) with their benevolent dictator, then should outsiders come in and insist on liberal democracy? My practicum in Rwanda enabled me to see all of this firsthand (not from a textbook) and critically reflect on the idea of human rights in all of its complexities beyond the theoretical. Thanks to the trip to Rwanda, my understanding was situated in the real world.
A Global Internship Allows Me to Apply My Skills and Gain New Connections
The MAPJ program gave me another valuable opportunity to practice the theories and skills I learned in class: a summer internship in Kathmandu, Nepal, through the Kroc School’s Institute for Peace and Justice (Kroc IPJ) and their Nepali partner, the Leadership Academy.
I’m so glad I applied for the internship. It was an incredible experience, both challenging and immensely rewarding. While working at the Leadership Academy in Nepal, I assisted with their Nepali Emerging Leaders Program (NELP), which works to develop emerging leaders with the skills necessary to engage with political leaders and those who influence local community issues.
During my first year in the MAPJ program, I’d gained a lot of skills that I was excited to apply and refine, and my internship was the perfect opportunity to put them to the test in another real-world setting. For starters, my Program Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation class prepared me to support two grants: one for the Asia Foundation for NELP and another one for the Swiss Embassy in Nepal. I also helped develop the curriculum for an important seminar, and through that process got to collaborate with expert facilitators ranging from members of the National Information Commission and the Nepali Parliament to leaders from civil society.
A highlight of my internship was working with a few of the emerging leaders on their projects geared towards uniting and supporting the different regions of Nepal. For example, one project responded to the devastating floods affecting large parts of Nepal by collecting donations of clothes, food, and medicine for people displaced and injured from these floods. Another project raised awareness of LGBTQI issues like the discrimination and violence people from this community still experienced in Nepal. With my help, these leaders were able to move their projects forward, thereby shaping more peaceful and just communities in Nepal.
My Advice: Join a Master’s Program That Merges Theory and Practice
It’s not an accident that I’ve been able to put many of the skills and concepts I’ve learned in my MAPJ classes into practice through real-world opportunities — the MAPJ program is designed that way. What’s been particularly exciting are the opportunities in which I’ve been able to use my skills in conflict analysis, program design, advocacy, and more, into action in a real-world international context.
As I think about my next career move, whether I return to teaching or go a different professional direction, I feel better prepared to enact meaningful change because I’ve already been able to use the skills I’ve gained and see their value for others.
At the Kroc School, we are educating for peace and social innovation. Ready to join us? Learn more about the Kroc School and its graduate programs.
This article originally ran on the website of the Kroc School at the University of San Diego.
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