Careers and Peacebuilding: My Talk at Penn State

By: David J. Smith, March 25, 2016

Yesterday, March 24, 2016, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of about 70 students
at Penn State University.   My talk was sponsored by the Penn State College of Communications, Office of Multicultural Affairs.  The event was co-sponsored by the African, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Students Club (AHANA).  My presentation

Working with students at Penn State

centered on examining peacebuilding careers paths.  I had the chance to talk about my book to the group.


When visiting colleges I find it important that students play a role in hosting my visit. Though my trip was organized by Carmen Frost of the Multicultural Affairs office, it was the students from AHANA who introduced me, talked about peacebuilding at Penn State, and organized the agenda.   In this way, students are owning the event, which helps in making it authentic to other students.  I was pleased to meet a number of AHANA officers and learn about their backgrounds, majors, and career expectations.  I often do this in advance of my talk, in that it gives me the chance to make last-minute nuanced changes in my approach tailored to student expectations.

With the publication of my book, I am glad  to have a chance

PEACEBUILDING David w Penn State Students DSC_0061
AHANA leadership

to present specific strategies that students can consider in thinking about their post-college professional life.  I started off in having students think about peace in terms of “means” rather than “ends.”   For many, peace  is viewed as a state of being in various contexts including spiritual and political.  I view these as “ends.”  Rather, if we think about the “means” of peace we are able to explore how the ways we go about doing our work and interacting with others will result in peaceful outcomes.   Mahatma Gandhi, for one, recognized that the means where critical:

“They say the means are after all just means.  I would say means are after all everything.  As the means, so the end.  If we take care of the means we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.” 

Reframing the discussion of peace in this way is a natural segue to career awareness.  I then spent time with students considering the need for “soft skills” in today’s job market: problem-solving, negotiation, team building, and collaboration.   These skills are too often neglected in career training.   For me, Gandhi’s admonition is naturally applicable to young people exploring their professional futures.  By emphasizing “means” students are able to integrate peacebuilding aptitudes into their work.

My model of “direct” and “indirect” work is a way of understanding the specific types of

Students considering their interpretations of peace

career paths that students can take.  Too often we conclude that only in “direct” action careers such as in diplomacy or humanitarian work can a student apply peacebuilding skills.   Rather, I suggest that students need to consider “indirect” action careers, which can be most any professional pathway: healthcare, business, IT, not for profit, education, and even military.  Here, peacebuilding might not be the prime focus of the work, but can be an important outcome.   My book provides a more detailed understanding of what this means.


My discussion with Penn State students ended with the below graphic that I use in my book.   It is from Hustle + Grind and I think it captures the essence of what many students desiring to work for peace are looking for.   Finding “purpose” is the goal, something that Daniel Pink in his book Drive also talks about.

Figure 2.1





Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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