Smaby Peace Scholars learn the power of dialogue in online summer program
In a time of polarization and global challenges, fostering constructive dialogue is more important, and difficult, than ever. But Maya Belova ’22 and Sannah Arvidson-Hicks ’22 are more than up to the task. Over the summer, the two Oles learned about the power of dialogue in conflict resolution as Smaby Peace Scholars.
Each year, six Norwegian-American colleges — Augsburg, Augustana, Concordia, Luther, Pacific Lutheran, and St. Olaf — select two students to participate in the seven-week Peace Scholars summer program, with the goal of “inspiring & engaging students to become full participants in peacemaking efforts around the world.” Students at St. Olaf receive funding to participate in the program through the Philip C. Smaby Peace Scholars Endowed Scholarship, which was established in honor of the late Philip Carlyle Smaby, a Minneapolis-St. Paul philanthropist who attended St. Olaf and three of whose children are alumni (Mark Smaby ’66, Gary Smaby ’71, and John Smaby ’76).
In a typical year, the program takes place in Norway, with the first five days spent in Lillehammer at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue for dialogue sessions, followed by several weeks of seminar courses at the Oslo International Summer School. But this year has been anything but typical, causing the program to shift to an online setting.
Though managing time zones between the U.S. and Norway sometimes proved challenging during the online program, the Peace Scholars still participated in robust discussions and seminars on the power of dialogue. The program followed the trajectory of the usual in-person structure, with a week of discussions through the Nansen Center, and then five weeks of seminars at the Oslo International Summer School. To make up for lost in-person tours and site visits, the program hosted guest speakers for the students.
In addition, the Peace Scholars still pursued individual research projects as they would for the in-person program. Belova, a political science major at St. Olaf with concentrations in Middle Eastern studies and film studies, investigated the causes of the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords. “I examined various peacebuilding theories, political discourses, and the differences in narratives of each conflicting party,” she says.
Arvidson-Hicks, who is pursuing an individual major in peace and conflict studies at St. Olaf and concentrating in international relations and management, researched the egalitarian ideals of social cohesion in Norway with a focus on the Law of Jante (Janteloven). Originally conceived as a satire, Janteloven is a Norwegian social code that values collective over individual accomplishment.
“As Scandinavian countries consistently rank high on the world happiness reports, I wanted to challenge concepts of happiness and explore social trust as a factor in these rankings,” Arvidson-Hicks says. “I thought that the framing of happiness could limit who can achieve it, and wanted to look at how the measuring methods might skew what is perceived as happiness.”
Although the online program was not the trip to Norway that the Peace Scholars expected, they found it incredibly valuable and developed lasting connections with fellow Scholars. Belova particularly appreciated the discussions about dialogue and its applications.
“I truly enjoyed the discussions we had in classes. They were rich and deep and concerned about current issues,” Belova says. “It also helped me to cope with everything that was happening this year because of the lens we were looking through at the events. During the Nansen week, we talked a lot about the pillars of the dialogue and how to implement it in our daily life. Everything I learned about the dialogue I tried to use in my daily life and while talking with the people I inherently disagree with.”
The program helped Arvidson-Hicks gain insight into her academic and career interests. Though she has sometimes doubted her career plans, being a Peace Scholar helped her develop confidence in her chosen path.
“The most rewarding part of the experience was feeling affirmed in my interests and course of study,” Arvidson-Hicks says. “Learning about sociologists and philosophers who have developed peace studies, meeting wonderful students who are passionate about societal change, and participating in a course about mediation and dialogue was an irreplaceable, invaluable experience of certainty that this is the path I hope to go down.”
Though rewarding, the program also brought challenges for the Scholars.
“Doing the program online was incredibly challenging for me,” Belova says. “It was hard to keep up with everything going through a pandemic, witnessing all the injustices happening in the world, and trying to apply for my U.S. visa. I believe that this year, Peace Scholars are very special, because we did it in the year 2020.”
Arvidson-Hicks agrees. “The pandemic, murder of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter protests had a huge impact on our discussion, and especially personal relevance for the Peace Scholars living in the Twin Cities in communities near the protests,” she says. “There were days where our heads, hearts, and internet connection from city surveillance were elsewhere. It was vital to acknowledge and struggle with these injustices together.”
Ultimately, the Peace Scholars program strengthened the students’ abilities to discuss, write about, and resolve issues through constructive dialogue. Their research projects allowed them to learn about specific issues of human rights and society in Norway, and helped them draw connections to other parts of the world.
“This experience will profoundly influence my future,” Arvidson-Hicks says. “I am now looking at graduate schools in Norway, my mind has been shaped by brilliant professors, I have a better understanding of conducting research, and I have been irreplaceably inspired by my fellow Scholars to chase challenging questions. The Peace Scholars program was an experience that actualized our potential through dialogue with others and within ourselves. I learned about some surprising parallels between boarding schools for indigenous peoples in Norway and in the United States, and am curious to pursue research on the reasoning for these similar blueprints for human rights violations and assimilation.”
“I learned a lot about the importance of the dialogue and how to conduct it,” Belova says. “I think the biggest revelation to me was the fact that whenever two opposing parties engage in a facilitated dialogue, they can start understanding each other’s needs, which by itself is quite transformative. I am planning to be involved in work related to human rights, immigration, or economic and social development, and my participation in the Peace Scholar program made me learn more about how I can practically engage in a dialogue that would be essential in any humanitarian work that I intend to be doing in the future.”