After the 2007 shootings, Virginia Tech responded in multiple ways and created several programs to investigate the causes of violence and to work against future violence. Virginia Tech’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention (CPSVP) is a cross-disciplinary group that studies violence prevention, peace studies and community reactions to acts of violence. The Center has a threefold mission: to teach, conduct research and use outreach to try to find ways to solve the problem of group violence.
The founding director of the Center, Dr. Jerzy Nowak, was widowed in the shooting when his wife, Professor Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, was killed. At that time Nowak, who was the head of the Horticulture department, came up with a proposal for the Center of Peace Studies and Violence Prevention to be held in Norris Hall, the building where most of the shootings took place. The Center’s first conference was called the International Summit on Transdisciplinary Approaches to Violence Prevention. The purpose of the conference was to have violence prevention experts from a broad range of different fields, and from all over the world, visit Virginia Tech, making it possible for people that don’t usually interact with one another to make connections, network, and share ideas.
With the first conference being successful but almost overwhelmingly large, the CPSVP decided to downsize the second conference. This would make possible a more focused outcome. They also decided to hold it internationally. Because of recent increased interest in the Middle East and North Africa, and because of Virginia Tech’s partnership with a school there, the École de Gouvernance et d’Économie de Rabat, the Center chose to hold the second conference in Rabat, Morocco. The title of the conference was the “Working Conference on the Causes and Consequences of Group Violence,” and it was held in September of 2013.
Virginia Tech staff involved with the effort included current CPSVP Director and sociology professor Dr. Jim Hawdon, sociology department head Dr. John Ryan, assistant professor of sociology Dr. Anthony Pegeuro, and Undergraduate Research Institute Interim Director Dr. Marc Lucht.
The Center decided to offer the opportunity to attend the conference to Virginia Tech students, whose expenses were fully paid by the CPSVP. Those interested were asked to send in a proposal and seven students were selected, with five making the trip to Morocco. Virginia Tech undergraduates Jeanne Chang, Alec Clott, Virginia Roach and Michelle Sutherland traveled to Morocco, along with Ph.D. candidate Christian Matheis.
Michelle Sutherland, who graduated in December 2013 with degrees in political science and philosophy, chose to get involved because the trip’s focus on group violence fit well with her academic interests.
“Many of my … courses have involved learning about and understanding why violence persists, and I was delighted by the prospect of engaging with these questions as part of an undergraduate research experience,” Sutherland said.
Christian Matheis, a Ph.D. candidate in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought, joined due to his interest in researching peace studies and violence prevention.
“The research project into group violence allowed me to … better understand how and why people select one another as targets of violence,” Matheis said. “The trip allowed me to gain feedback from an international community of experts, including graduate students in Morocco working to foster change in their home nation.”
The students on the trip were split into two teams, each assigned to write a paper to be presented at the conference. In order to further the networking process in Morocco, the Virginia Tech students were asked to give their papers to Moroccan students from the partnering school. The Moroccan students were asked to make suggestions and critique the papers before the conference, and they offered detailed feedback during face to face meetings in Rabat. Not only did the Tech students have this experience in international scholarly collaboration, but the students who went also had the opportunity to stay with Moroccan families or in an apartment with Moroccan students. They also visited several different cities, including Fez and Marrakech.
Not only did this trip enable Virginia Tech students to interact with Moroccan students, broadening their cultural horizons, but they also were afforded the opportunity to attend conference presentations and talk with some of the world’s top experts on group violence.
“It was so fascinating to hear the other scholars talk about their research and ask questions,” Sutherland said. “It was also very rewarding to talk to them about our research over lunch and to hear their interest. The conference included a remarkable group of people.”
Another result of the conference is that the articles the students wrote will be published in a book, From Bullies to Terrorists: The Causes and Consequences of Group Violence. The trip gave each student unique academic and personal experiences.
“It was a phenomenal experience, both in allowing me to grow as a student and allowing me the opportunity to go outside my comfort zone abroad,” Sutherland said.
Matheis particularly enjoyed visiting with community organizers and women’s rights activists in Morocco to discuss how they work for social change. For him, this experience abroad influenced his career goals.
“Although I have always felt open to the possibility of pursuing work outside the U.S.A., I now more clearly consider this feasible,” Matheis said. “I may pursue opportunities to research and teach abroad.”
These conferences will continue to occur as long as there is enough funding to continue them. This conference was funded and made possible by the Lacy Foundation, the CPSVP, and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.