I set out this summer hoping to answer one question: What is peace?
As one of two Concordia College Peace Scholars for 2017, I, along with my classmate Grace Hoffa, spent two months in Norway studying, playing, traveling, and living with students from all over the world.
The Peace Scholars program began as a collaborative effort between six institutions with Norwegian-American heritage – Concordia College, Augsburg, Augustana, Luther, St. Olaf, and Pacific Lutheran – to deepen students’ knowledge of conflict and peacebuilding. This year’s program was expanded to include California State University, Sacramento, and the University of Hawaii. Each institution selects two Peace Scholars to represent their school, resulting in a group of 16 incredibly passionate, intelligent, and diverse young adults from all fields of study. Collectively, we were students of international relations, biology, journalism, political science, public administration, sociology, nursing, religion, economics, and environmental studies. We were musicians, runners, writers, and aspiring doctors. And when we met in June, we were strangers.
Our adventure began in Lillehammer, a beautiful little storybook town just north of Oslo known best for hosting the 1994 Winter Olympics. Tucked among the colorful wooden houses lining Lake Mjøsa is the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue, a veritable hub for international dialogue and peacemaking efforts, where we spent our first week together.
During our week at the Nansen Center, we participated in a series of structured dialogue sessions with 20 young adults from Russia, Ukraine, Norway, and the Balkans, led by the Nansen Center’s senior advisor, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Steinar Bryn. One activity I found particularly moving was a question-and-answer session spread over the course of two days. On Wednesday, we were divided into four regions – United States, Norway, Russia/Ukraine, and the Balkans – and tasked with developing a list of questions to ask each of the other regions. At the end of the day, we exchanged lists and returned to our groups to discuss our answers.
On Wednesday evening, Bryn invited all of us to his home for a garden party. We ate hot dogs, drank aquavit, and danced on the porch as the sun refused to set on the longest day of the year. I felt something change in our group dynamic that night. It was the first time that all of us had come together purely to have fun, and it brought us closer – just in time for the next day’s activity.
We reconvened on Thursday morning and took turns asking each region a question. The questions varied in both content and emotional weight. As Americans, we were asked about everything from which conspiracy theories we believed to our opinions on U.S. military involvement in Syria. There was laughter, and there were tears. This activity opened my eyes to the cultures and conflicts of countries that I previously knew embarrassingly little about, as well as the very real impact that my own country’s actions have on very real people around the world. I doubt that the same honesty, openness, and trust could have been achieved without the bonding we did the night before.
On Saturday morning, we boarded a bus that would take us to the University of Oslo, where we would spend our remaining six weeks studying at the International Summer School. The transition from the peaceful lakeside town of Lillehammer to the country’s bustling capital and from a group of 36 to more than 500 students was jarring. Our first two days in the city were packed with orientation events and sightseeing tours and, on Monday, we started school.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take two classes at the International Summer School: the mandatory Peace Scholars Seminar and one elective, for which I chose Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries. Gender Equality was a three-hour daily lecture and the Peace Scholars Seminar consisted of one two-hour lecture and one field trip every week. The content of the Peace Scholars Seminar varies from year to year, focusing on Norway as a case study upon which to build theoretical understandings of peace and conflict. The topic this year was the global migration crisis and, more specifically, the reception of refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to Norway. Our weekly excursions brought us to organizations like the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Nobel Peace Center, the Norwegian Peace Council, and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.
The seminar culminated in a major research project focusing on a topic of our choosing. My research centered on the rise of anti-immigrant, particularly anti-Muslim, rhetoric in Norwegian discourse surrounding sexual violence – an admittedly ambitious topic to try to cover in six weeks. In conducting my research, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Shoaib Sultan, an advisor at the Norwegian Center against Racism responsible for mapping extremist activity throughout the country, former Secretary General of the Islamic Council of Norway, and one of the most prominent voices in religious dialogue in the country.
Somewhere in my busy Peace Scholar schedule, I also found some time to explore. Having quickly learned how to navigate Oslo’s public transportation system, I spent my free time wandering Norway’s many museums (seeing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at the National Gallery was a highlight) and taking the ferry out to the small islands in Oslofjord. Feeling adventurous, I signed up for a 16-kilometer mountain hike through Jotunheimen National Park. I even planned a weekend trip to Stockholm in less than 72 hours.
But more transformative than any dialogue activity, research project, or field trip were the people I met during my brief time in Norway. I boarded my flight to Oslo barely even knowing my fellow Cobber. Now I can say that I have friends scattered all over the world: peace activists from Russia, a feminist filmmaker from Azerbaijan, an adviser to the president of Macedonia, a fiercely passionate and loyal woman from Bosnia, and so many more. As I reflect on the time I spent with these people, I am reminded of a simple quote from one of Steinar’s lectures during that first week in Lillehammer: “Distance creates conflict.” Every time we came together to laugh, play, and dine, the walls that separated our nations seemed to fall.
I set out this summer seeking the answer to one question: What is peace? The answer, I found, is that peace is not any one thing. Peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace is not neutrality, or compromise, or passivity. For me, peace is dancing to Shakira in broad daylight at 11 p.m. It is playing beach volleyball with a team of near-strangers from more than a half dozen countries. It is the feeling of cool rain pelting your face after you summit a mountain. Peace is justice; it is equal access to education, healthcare, and opportunity. It is sitting across from someone and listening not to respond or to argue, but to understand.
Distance does create conflict, but if we are willing to traverse the distances and differences between us, together, we can create peace.
Katie Beedy '18 is a communication studies and multimedia journalism double major.