2020 Student Peace Conference Co-Chairs: Mitchell Larson and Maria Rossi

Author: Hannah Heinzekehr

2020 Student Peace Conf Chairs 12

The Notre Dame Student Peace Conference, endowed by Joan B. Kroc and sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, is an annual gathering organized by students and for students. Its mission is to provide space for graduate and undergraduate students from all colleges and universities to dialogue about peacebuilding, social justice and conflict transformation. Each year, the event draws hundreds of students from across North America and around the world.

This year’s conference will focus on the theme, “2020 Visions: Where Do We Go From Here?” It will take place April 3-4 at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies on the University of Notre Dame campus.

Notre Dame senior Maria Rossi, a psychology major with a supplementary major in peace studies, and junior Mitchell Larson, an economics and applied and computational math and statistics major with a minor in peace studies, are serving as co-chairs of the conference planning committee. Both are members of the Glynn Family Honors program. 

Here they reflect on their hopes for the conference, the importance of peace studies and what they are learning through the conference planning process.

Why did you say yes to serving as co-chairs for the Student Peace Conference this year?

Mitchell: Peace studies was actually part of the reason I chose to attend Notre Dame. I participated in a summer program here between my junior and senior years of high school led by Professor [Atalia] Omer and Professor [Ernesto] Verdeja [director of the Undergraduate Program in Peace Studies], and so when I came here I knew I wanted to be a peace studies minor. Sophomore year when I got in and I took Intro to Peace Studies, I found that I enjoyed the program and went to many Kroc Institute events. So when the call came out this year for co-chairs, I thought, sure, this sounds great!

Maria: My story is similar. I also came to Notre Dame partly because of the Peace Studies Program. I live here in town and went to high school in South Bend, and there were a couple people I knew who were involved with the Kroc Institute and the conference, and so I got involved with peace studies very early on and have been a participant on the conference planning committee since my sophomore year. When the call came from leaders, I felt ready to jump in this year. 

What do you think is particularly special about this conference being planned by students and for students?

Maria: It makes things like academic conferences really accessible. I think there’s a tendency to be intimidated by gatherings like this if you haven’t been a part of one. There’s something special about being behind the scenes that demystifies the conference planning process and makes it accessible. 

It’s also a really great way to meet other students and to work together to produce something. It puts us in charge of what we’re doing. It’s not just adults putting a program together for us, but we get to take agency and shape this gathering.

Mitchell: Building off that idea of agency, we’re aiming to have two keynote speakers: one an established scholar and one a student activist. I think you can see the influence of students in that decision. Especially in a field like peace studies there’s a big role for scholar-practitioners and student activism that the peace conference can help foster. 

How did you decide on the theme “2020 Visions: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Mitchell: There are two levels to the theme. First, what I like about peace studies is that it focuses a lot on the future. What’s happened in the past is a big part of what we study, but there’s a huge current events focus and also a huge focus on what issues could develop. The peacebuilding focus is not just on putting out fires now, but controlling them and also preventing them from starting. We thought it could be cool to do a conference that looks forward. 

The second part of it is that I really like puns! When I saw that it was the year 2020, the idea of 2020 vision came to mind. 

This is the second year in a row that there has been a question in the theme (the 2019 conference theme was “Expanding Circles: Peace in a Polarized Age?). What is significant about that?

Maria: These are just uncertain times. Honestly we have more questions than answers, especially as young people looking forward. I think the question kind of illuminates that reality. 

How have you thought about who you’d like to invite as keynote speakers?

Maria: Dr. Siobhan McEvoy Levy, a professor at Butler University, is confirmed and we’d like to also feature a student climate activist. [Since the interview, Karen Dong, a leader with Youth Climate Strike, has been confirmed as a keynote speaker.] Siobhan does a lot of work on how youth can be a part of peacebuilding work, so not just on peacebuilding for youth, but by youth. This ties in with the general theme of the conference every year which is about how youth get involved and how we as young people can take agency in shaping the world for the better. 

Mitchell: When we were starting to plan the conference, there were a lot of protests around the Democratic National Convention that were calling for a climate debate during the primary season. I’ve always considered climate change a major issue, but those protests put it in the forefront of my mind again. Especially given that we’re looking at the future, there are a huge number of issues that climate change will touch in some way: resource wars, water conflicts, etc. It really tied the theme together. 

And one interesting development is that the climate change movement has gone from a lot of scientists making arguments to being a youth-led effort. You can see that with people like [climate activist] Greta [Thunberg]. 

What are your hopes for the conference this year?

Maria: I’d love to see people walk away and say they learned something they didn’t know or that they heard about something or saw something from a new perspective. Or maybe even that they met someone they wouldn’t have met otherwise. These encounters are the entire point of the conference, in my view. 

Mitchell: We’re planning on having one meal right after a keynote session. It will be a success if people at that meal are still talking about the keynote address and points it brought up. I think that’s the hallmark of a good event, that after it ends you’re still thinking about what you heard and wanting to talk about it more. 

Why should students from all over the country make plans to attend the conference?

Mitchell: It’s a great opportunity to learn without having to take a test or write a paper. You can just take in knowledge and let it sink in. 

Maria: If I was talking to someone, I’d say that sometimes we take college for granted. I’m in the second semester of my senior year and I’m realizing how many opportunities there are that you just don’t get when you’re not around a university. This is a great chance to hear more about an issue you care about in a new light and to be in a place with many other students who also care about that issue. That’s a very unique-to-college experience that I hope people will take advantage of. 

Conference registration is open through March 29. To register and for more information about the conference, visit sites.nd.edu/peacecon.