For two graduating students, studying peace is a family affair

Author: Hannah Heinzekehr

Spesia FamilyMembers of the Spesia family, including Notre Dame peace studies graduates Meg and Beth (front, second and third from left) and Frank (back, second from left). Photo provided by Meg Spesia.

When they graduate this week, Meg Spesia and Juan Fernandez will both become the third member of their family to complete a supplementary major or minor in the undergraduate peace studies program at the University of Notre Dame.


Spesia came to college with no intention of studying peace. Her sister and brother, Beth (‘15) and Frank (‘16), had both pursued peace studies at Notre Dame and she wanted to pave her own way. However, soon after arriving on campus, through connections made by her sister, Spesia was offered a job working at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The rest was history.


“When you’re a student worker, you’re around the professors and you see the work they are doing,” said Spesia. “I got this window into many of the things that go into the Kroc Institute, and I thought they were really cool and important and I realized, how could I not take these classes?”


Spesia, a theology major with a minor in peace studies, is headed to Houston after graduation to live at a Catholic Worker House that supports recent immigrants to the city.


“Many of my classmates have facilitated my growing relationship with the Catholic Worker movement, and peace studies has made me appreciate what individual peacebuilding and action can look like,” said Spesia. “My professors were models of living with a purpose, and you could tell that they care about actually creating peace and change. This made me think carefully about what I wanted to do after graduation.”


Image1Juan, Maria and José Fernandez. Photo provided by Maria Fernandez. 

For Juan Fernandez, a political science major with minors in peace studies and business economics, siblings Maria (‘13) and José (‘16) were instrumental in his decision to pursue peace studies.


“The professors that Maria and Jose mentioned sounded great, and I knew I had to take a class with some of them,” he said.


Through his peace studies classes, Fernandez, who will begin work at Deutsche Bank in New York this fall, says he’s gained the ability to approach the news with an analytical and global perspective and to think quickly to address complex problems at home and at work.


“During my interviews, I emphasized that through political science and peace studies I was able to see how geopolitical and sociopolitical events around the world effect the markets,” he said. “Peace studies definitely gives you the tools to think on your feet and be analytical.”


Both the Fernandez and Spesia families acknowledge that the impact of peace studies moved beyond Notre Dame to impact conversations at home.


“When we all get home together, we have some pretty robust conversations around the dinner table or in the living room,” said Frank Spesia, now pursuing a Master of Global Affairs degree at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. “All contemporary issues are analyzed through multiple lenses and perspectives, and my family is really focused not just on the perspectives of decisionmakers, but how people are impacted by decisions. These conversations feel really enjoyable and unique to our family.” 


And for Beth Spesia, her senior capstone peace studies class on conflict and narrative, taught by Sandra Gustafson, Professor of English and Kroc Institute Faculty Fellow, built connections between peace studies, literature and teaching that still influence her work today. In Fall 2019, Beth will begin a Fulbright fellowship year teaching English in Mexico and working on a literary translation project.


“The class showed me the ways that broad theoretical issues and global conflicts are manifested in literature. Peace studies is about solutions, growth, dialogue, and understanding,” she wrote. “Studying peace is by nature an optimistic endeavor, and as a teacher I aim to share this hope for a better future with my students.”


The Fernandez family first learned about peace studies as an option when they attended a Notre Dame Alumni Association event in Panama City featuring George Lopez, Professor Emeritus of Peace Studies, who mentioned the program.


For Maria, the first Fernandez sibling to study at Notre Dame, the program seemed like a perfect combination of her interests in international relations and public policy. After graduation, Maria spent three years working in the public sector in Puerto Rico, before pursuing graduate studies in law.


“In the work I did, I saw myself using what I had learned in the peace studies program on a regular basis,” said Maria. “My peace studies background allowed me to engage in effective government negotiations and to bring new ideas to the table to address some of the island’s most imminent social and economic challenges. In my family we joke that I convinced my younger brother, Juan, to become a political science major and peace studies minor because he had to hear me talk passionately every single night at the dinner table about the ups and downs of my workdays in the Puerto Rico public sector.”


José Fernandez also picked up on his sister’s enthusiasm for peace studies and was drawn to the program during his time at Notre Dame.


“The passion with which Maria spoke about her classes and professors and the topics discussed really sparked a curiosity in me that pushed me to learn more about the program,” said José. “The key learning from my peace studies courses was the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills. All of my professors challenged me to think critically and to seek solutions from the root of issues.”


Although being a younger sibling can sometimes be challenging, both Meg and Juan emphasize their gratitude to their siblings for encouraging them to pursue peace studies at Notre Dame.


“We’re big fans of peace studies in my family now,” said Meg. “The combination of the Catholic faith in my family and going to a Montessori school as a kid brings up a lot of questions about how to engage in the world, and peace studies has given us a framework for really productive conversations.”