News

St. Olaf College | News

Students study the value of dialogue as Smaby Peace Scholars

How can dialogue work to facilitate peacemaking and conflict resolution between parties who strongly disagree with one another? This is a question that St. Olaf College students Manuela Novoa Villada ’21, and Kristina Quanbeck ’21 grappled with and explored for seven weeks in Norway as part of the Smaby Peace Scholars program. 

The two juniors were joined by students from six other academic institutions: Augsburg, Augustana, Concordia, Luther, Pacific Lutheran, and the University of Hawaii. Each institution, including St. Olaf, selected two students to participate in an intense, seven-week discourse on conflict and peace resolution. 

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).

Peace Scholars participants began the seminar by spending a week at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer, and then moved on to spend six weeks at the International Summer School in Oslo. 

The peace scholars — including Manuela Novoa Villada ’21 (middle row, far right) and Kristina Quanbeck ’21 (back row, far left) — at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer.

The first week was spent focusing closely on the facilitation and understanding of dialogue. The students then went on to the seminar in Oslo, where they conducted their own research, attended lectures, fostered constructive dialogue, participated in relevant excursions, and continued to deepen their understanding of conflict, war, and peace, and the noted theories and issues surrounding these topics. 

Novoa Villada, a sociology/anthropology and philosophy major, chose to conduct her research on the usage of dialogue in peace agreements occurring in her home country of Colombia. She was skeptical about dialogue as a tool in conflict resolution, as her prior observations and personal experience indicated to her that dialogue simply was not effective. 

“I was surprised by how dialogue-focused this seminar was,” Novoa Villada says. “I had my doubts, considering my firsthand experience with dialogue failing to resolve conflict in Colombia.”

However, after attending the program, her attitude towards dialogue as a tool has shifted.

“I know now that the point of dialogue isn’t to try to agree with everyone,” she says. “Effective dialogue comes after the acceptance of the fact that you may never reach an agreement, but you can at least come to an understanding of why others think the way that they do.”

Manuela Novoa Villada ’21I know now that the point of dialogue isn’t to try to agree with everyone. Effective dialogue comes after the acceptance of the fact that you may never reach an agreement, but you can at least come to an understanding of why others think the way that they do.

This is a critical aspect of the successfulness of dialogue, she notes, whether it’s on a small-scale or large-scale. Both Novoa Villada and Quanbeck completed various dialogue simulations with the other peace scholars, extrapolating the skills they learned to real-world events and working through tough questions.

Quanbeck, who is majoring in political science and Norwegian with a concentration in race and ethnic studies, chose to conduct her personal research on how climate change mitigation is impacted by the presence of right-wing populist parties in Norway and Germany. 

Like Novoa Villada, she was also skeptical of such dialogue, especially the need for communication with others who hold starkly contrasting ideologies and worldviews. 

“How can we agree to meet with others who are so hateful?” she pondered. 

But, she says, it turns out that the first step toward conflict resolution can simply be agreeing to meet with your adversary. 

“I’ve learned that the most important goal in terms of dialogue is simply ridding yourself of the idea that it’s something to ‘win,'” Quanbeck says. “If you release the expectation of some kind of an agreement, you won’t be disappointed, the dialogue is more open-ended, everyone is less frustrated, and it feels as if something has been accomplished.”

Kristina Quanbeck ’21I’ve learned that the most important goal in terms of dialogue is simply ridding yourself of the idea that it’s something to ‘win.’ If you release the expectation of some kind of an agreement, you won’t be disappointed, the dialogue is more open-ended, everyone is less frustrated, and it feels as if something has been accomplished.

Both St. Olaf students came out of the program feeling more able to have difficult conversations than they could prior. The seminar challenged them on their preconceived notions of open-mindedness and invited them to question their own methods of communication. 

And as far as engaging in dialogue with those who hold completely different beliefs? Instead of turning down this opportunity, both scholars now maintain the mindset that if you can engage in this sort of dialogue, you should

Manuela Novoa Villada ’21 (left) and Kristina Quanbeck ’21 at the Oslo City Hall during the Peace Scholars Program.

Novoa and Quanbeck highly recommend this program to any students with an interest in human rights, the concept of equality, international relations, and, of course, peace. 

“Access to a resource like the Nansen Center is a unique opportunity for students interested in these fields,” Quanbeck says. “Not only do you receive comprehensive dialogue-facilitation training, but you also get to work with people who have been present during significant moments in peace-making history and have firsthand experience with these topics in real life.”

For example, Novoa Villada and Quanbeck had the opportunity to work with Steinar Bryn, a senior advisor at the Nansen Center, who has been particularly active in peacemaking conversations during times of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Ukraine.

“The possibility granted to us by the program to make connections with influential thinkers in relevant fields is not an opportunity to be overlooked,” Novoa Villada adds. She also took advantage of the Nansen Center’s resources and information database to inform her research on peacemaking in Colombia. 

Novoa Villada is now determined to implement the tools she’s attained through the program in her studies. She also has a much more comprehensive idea of the scope of what’s possible for her. “I feel I simply have a better idea of what’s out there for me,” she says. 

Quanbeck admitted that she feels even more uncertain about future prospects for a career after this program. “After meeting with various humanitarian organizations as well as developing relationships with master’s students in these fields, I am overwhelmed by the possibilities,” she says.