Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
One of the goals of writing for the Rotary Peace Center blog is to share with others what it is like to participate in a program like this. It is like none other of which I know…and for this it presents joys and challenges on many different levels and registers for both participants, staff, and locals with whom we interact. At this point in the program, of which we are about half way through, I’d like to reflect upon the life-changing process that is happening. Although the classroom content might be the same across the different cohorts, what happens outside the classroom is a particular alchemical reaction catalyzed by the particular people in the group. That process is really the unwritten curriculum that parallels and enhances what happens in the classroom!
First, however, let me share a little bit about myself and why I am interested in the “unwritten curriculum.” My name is Michelle Rivera-Clonch and I come from the Sunshine State of Florida in the US. My background is in mental health counseling and psychology and I have held various positions such as Assistant Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services center at a liberal arts college, Director of the Women’s Center and Women’s Programs at a state university, and as the founding faculty member of the psychology program of the newly revitalized Antioch College in Yellow Springs. This fall I’ll be at a new institution, Rollins College in Winter Park, and I’ll be teaching Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling as well as Research Methods and Statistics to graduate counseling students. In addition to my work in academia, I have also been involved with global south/north partnerships in South and Southeast Asia for over 10 years. I primarily work with NGOs around empowerment counseling skills and gender capacity building. As a result, I have a keen interest in anti-psychological colonization practices and policies in global south/north helping relationships and self-care practices for therapeutic helpers and activists.
So, with a doctorate degree in psychology and these particular research interests, you can see why I gravitate towards the human element and processes of our program!
What makes this Rotary program singular is that it brings together a group of mid-career professionals from all over the world for 3 months. This is no small amount of time, or sacrifice, for people who work full-time and have families.
We all leave our families, our friends, our pets, our colleagues, our projects, our homes, our communities, our health care systems, our physical activities and/or spaces, our hobbies (if they aren’t portable), our familiar worship spaces, our daily routines, our comfort foods and products, our tv programs, our postal mail, and all sorts of other responsibilities, support systems, and places of retreat in order to live into this program. We voluntarily trade in our daily lives for a chance to formally learn about peace and conflict resolution from expert faculty from all over the globe… and from each other.
As you might imagine, when we live, work, and play together, we learn a lot from each other. Therein lays the magic of this experience. Each person in this group is an expert in their own field. As you have probably read in other posts, we have people from a variety of fields….city planning, women’s rights, peace organizations in the middle east, journalism, professional musician, police officers, civilian peacekeeping, professional mediating, government policy making, refugee advocacy, human rights, academic professors (I’m not alone!), UN peacekeeping, and election oversight coming from Nigeria, Kenya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Australia, and the US.
It is impossible to not learn from each other on the personal level, the interpersonal level, the group level, the vocation level, the cultural level, and the transnational and international levels. On top of that, there is never a dull moment between us and we have tons of fun and laughter together!
And we do this in a new place away from home called Thailand! While some of us have been here before, none of us have lived in Thailand. So, to put this into perspective, we are experiencing a new country, new cultural traditions, new cultural faux pas, new food, new languages, new transportation systems, new housekeeping systems (laundry, necessity shopping, etc), new dorm living, new biorhythms, new climate, new currency, new personalities, new program requirements, new academic content, new methodologies, new pedagogical philosophies and styles, and much, much more.
Effectively we are in what anthropologist Victor Turner calls a liminal space. It is neither here nor there, or betwixt and between, where all of our regular automatic structures–on the affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels–are loosened up to such a great extent that we cannot function as we did before. Other scholars, such as India’s Homi Bhabha, call this third space –an ambivalent space that disrupts or can even dismantle one’s identity and the supports that work to keep that identity in place. Carl Jung, the prominent Swiss psychologist, calls this the transcendent function since transcending the tension of bipolar opposites allows for new possibilities to emerge.
You might be wondering to yourself why would anyone voluntarily go through a program such as the one I am describing! I agree, in some ways it sounds intimidating and overwhelming. Well, we go through it because each one of us knows, on a deep core level, that it will be transformative and we are already agents of change in our professional lives…so it makes sense that we’d be interested in being agents of change in our personal lives too.
As we all know, transformation cannot come without risk, without a sacrifice of something old for the something new. When there is a fissure, a rupture, or a loosening space in familiar and/or worn out structures, new growth can emerge. The choice is ours whether we plant weeds or flowers in those new spaces. Each one of us in the program is a gardener in this sense. We have tended for ourselves and for each other a rich, fertile and beautiful space in which to learn from each other and to incorporate self-reflexivity. We have the opportunity to reflect upon, learn from, and apply new learnings as we examine our own personal values, perspectives, defense mechanisms, ambitions, interaction style, discomforts, fears and passions. This process is powerful!
And because we do it in a place that is unfamiliar (Thailand) with a group of people who are unfamiliar, we cannot rely on old habits, or shortcuts to breeze through this process. It is deep, it is meaningful, and it is alchemical. Old and rigid cognitive structures start to wither and soften up. New and fluid cognitive structures reform from what was shed–the remnants–and start taking on new life. It is a slow and vivacious process, which makes it manageable. And with the help and support of our cohort members and highly capable staff, we are constantly moving towards more peace within.
Moving towards peace within is a major motivational factor….not only for me, but I imagine, for many of us. As Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and Christian mystic said, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes the work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”
I am inspired by this quote and as we are now at the halfway point of this fellowship, I am gaining a deeper understanding of myself, of my role in the world, of others, and of what Thomas Merton was talking about when he wrote this from his room in Gethsemani, Kentucky. [Side bar: Thomas Merton died on my birthday, a few years before I was born, in Bangkok of all places!!!]
The personal transformation towards greater peace within is what drives me to jump into this fellowship with happiness! The collective process towards greater inner and outer peace within and between the cohort is magical! The combination of these two, along side the opportunities presented, is simply priceless and well worth the sacrifice! I already know I’ll be feeling sad when this incredible experience comes to an end in August. My gratitude goes to Rotary International, my letter writers, my sponsor club, my host counselor, and the Peace Center Staff and Faculty for shepherding me through this process. With a deep bow and lotus palms to each of you….
Michelle Rivera-Clonch, USA
Rotary Peace Fellow
June 2015 Session