Community Colleges, A New Frontier

By David J. Smith

Efforts at advancing teaching peace in secondary education often through peace education approaches, in four year undergraduate institutions by way of peace studies, and in graduate education generally via conflict resolution strategies have been successful as measured by the number of programs offered in those educational environments, as well as the number of dedicated educators working in these sectors. Overall the numbers are convincing with some 450 programs internationally, with nearly 100 of these programs at the graduate level. However one group of important institutions has been absent from this picture: community colleges. There are over 1,500 community colleges operating in the U.S., another 150 in Canada, and the model is being employed in countries overseas. With nearly 13 million students taking credit and non-credit courses, community colleges today represent nearly 50 percent of all U.S. under-graduates. Though community college students are frequently coming from non-traditional backgrounds, they represent the broad spectrum of 21st century demographics that will characterize American and Canadian society in the coming years. Community colleges are truly “democracy’s colleges.” They are places where an education, be it to prepare one for global citizenship or a vocational career, can be achieved regardless of station of life. It is not surprising that community colleges are referred to as “democracy’s colleges.” Having said this, it is striking that educators have at times dismissed the potential for promoting peace-building and conflict resolution in these institutions.

There is a growing realization among community college educators that teaching about peacebuilding is an important goal in promoting global competency with students who will be the teachers, law enforcement officers, service men and women, business entrepreneurs, and health care workers of the future. Innovative community college faculty recognizing the pivotal role they play in helping shape their students’ worldviews and build their skills, are using varied approaches to promoting peacebuilding. A cadre of faculty meets annually at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland in the spring to share ideas and build capacity in colleges for advancing peacebuilding education through peace studies, conflict resolution, and related fields. Today there are nearly 30 programs in the U.S and Canada that advance peace awareness through credit and noncredit approaches. Four-year and even graduate programs would be wise to identify community colleges that might create transfer “pipelines” to achieving more advanced degrees. Often teaching about peace has been “boutiqued” and offered in programs that are selective, cater to a small constituency, or fail to recognize that to make our society truly peaceable we need to work more diligently with the main stream populations that community colleges represent.

Those teaching in community colleges subscribe to approaches that leverage the inherent programmatic flexibility of community colleges, the diversity found in their student populations, and the natural innovative pedagogical focus of these institutions. Community college peacebuilding educators recognize that their work must focus on engaging students not only in critical thinking and exploration, but also in critical action and engagement. As institutions where applied and experiential education is a core value, getting students to know the “ways and means” of peace is a critical outcome. In addition, faculty recognize that many of their students are deeply connected to their local communities, and as such most likely will spend their personal and professional lives in the same communities they study in. As such, faculty are keenly aware of the need to bring global experiences and awareness into the classroom, particularly when local challenges today are inextricably connected to global ones. Community colleges are ideal venues to teach about challenges that are inherently interdisciplinary: often students are coming to education with unfocused and ambiguous goals. An approach that shows the connection between the various forces that advance peace and seed violence is idea in this environment. Finally, community college educators today recognize that their students can contribute to solving some of the most pressing challenges we face as a society, be it environmental degradation, abuses of civil and human rights, or global pandemics that might impact war.

Community colleges are unique environments that are often seeking to serve student diversity not present in the same scale at four year institutions. Immigrant groups today find themselves best served by community colleges where they learn basic skills such as reading and computation, have the opportunity in a supportive classroom to come to terms with difficult experiences, and prepare themselves for engagement in a 21st century economy. Places likes Henry Ford Community College (HFCC) in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a population that is nearly 40 percent Arab American, can promote peace awareness in a way that can better enable new arrivals from places in conflict to understand their experiences, come to terms with their frustration, and develop skills that can be applied both in their present communities and their communities of origin. As a result, HFCC is promoting peace and conflict strategies with their students.

In many community colleges, seeing men and women in uniform is common. The experiences of U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan have impacted community college populations in ways that four year institutions cannot compare with. Recently I asked my students at Georgetown University how many of them had relatives or friends (or themselves) who had been impacted by the current wars. Only a handful indicated any type of impact, mostly indirect. A typical community college population would include military reservists, their families, and retires looking for new skill development and educational opportunities while supporting their country. It is essential that their experiences be valued, shared, and reflected upon to better understand the impact of war, but also to help veterans channel their experiences into peacebuilding futures. Many community colleges, such as North-west Vista College in San Antonio, have focused on serving military communities through peacebuilding strategies.

Community colleges have important community building missions often not present in other educational sectors. They can be found tackling important issues that impact local populations who are facing challenges from global influences. An example is the efforts by Dawson College in Montreal, which in 2001 hosted a 3-day conference on violence prevention that examined intolerance, inequality, and racism among other issues. This conference was partly in response to a school shooting a few years earlier.

As both American and Canadian society continue to reflect a new mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, values, and aspirations, com-munity colleges will increasingly play an important role in advancing peacebuilding approaches to solve our current and future challenges as a global community.

David J. Smith is an independent consultant focusing on peace-building in higher education. He is the editor of Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource (USIP Press, 2013)

This article was originally published in the Peace Chronicle, The Newsletter of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, Spring-Summer 2013 edition.  It is reprinted here with permission.  The Peace and Justice Studies Association can be found at http://www.peacejusticestudies.org

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