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Student Spotlight: Mount Peacemakers Shahanaaz Soumah and Emily Jansen

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

peace feature

University life can be hectic, even chaotic, and students at Mount St. Mary’s don’t stand on the sidelines. Two of the Mount’s most active students are nevertheless seeking peace!   More specifically, campus leaders Shahanaaz Soumah, C’22, and Emily Jansen, C’23, have chosen the Mount’s newest undergraduate major of conflict, peace and social justice, and they are already implementing what they have learned in this innovative program.

Kristin Urban, Ph.D., a recently named emeritus professor of political science, spearheaded the development of the interdisciplinary conflict, peace and social justice (CPSJ) major, designed to enhance the Mount’s ability to graduate students who pursue “the good.” Rooted in Catholic social teaching and building upon the critical-thinking and communication skills developed in the Mount’s core curriculum, the major analyzes conflict, social justice, and peace-making according to established theoretical models and professional standards, while developing leaders who are catalysts for social and personal change.  

When she arrived at the Mount, Shahanaaz Soumah initially decided to minor in conflict, peace and social justice (CPSJ). She fell in love with the material and immersed herself in the program. She recalled, “I had the chance to meet Dr. Urban, and we often spoke about my research and career interests. So when she told me that she was able to establish CPSJ as a major, I told her to sign me up!”  Now, Soumah is majoring in CPSJ and double minoring in history and sociology.

A passionate advocate for social justice, Soumah has been a campus leader regarding the Mount’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. She served as an executive board member for the student-run organization, The V.O.I.C.E. (The Visionaries of Inclusive Cultural Experiences); as vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Student Government Association (SGA); and on a variety of related committees.  When a racially charged incident occurred on campus last spring, Soumah was a part of a group of students who led a peaceful demonstration to the provost’s office. “All of this can be attributed to my drive and passion for social justice,” she offered, “but also what I am learning through the CPSJ major.”

Soumah also applies key elements of her CPSJ coursework to her campus role as co-coordinator of the Amnesty International program.  Currently, the group is preparing to host a “Write for Rights” letter-writing event.  Soumah explained that this program “focuses on activists who have been punished for standing up for change.”  She and her peers seek to prevent additional unjust actions by penning letters to victims of human rights abuses and the governments who have committed them. 

Emily Jansen joins Soumah as co-coordinator of the Amnesty International program on campus.  Aware of the many opportunities she can pursue as a CPSJ graduate, Jansen became interested in the new major after attending a lecture offered by George Lopez, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  An impassioned peacemaker, Lopez emphasized the importance of having an education rooted in peace. Inspired, Jansen wanted to learn more about CPSJ. “Hearing about [Dr. Lopez’s] achievements,” she emphasized, “the work he did for the United Nations, and the program he was working in at Notre Dame helped me understand the real-world implications of CPSJ as a discipline.”

Jansen’s favorite CPSJ course so far, Introduction to Conflict and Peace Studies, was foundational. “The great thing about CPSJ is that it applies in every course you take,” she explained, “so the topics you learn about in the first class transfer everywhere,” including subsequent classes in political science, international relations, theology, interpersonal communications and sociology.

Like Soumah, Jansen is heavily involved outside of the classroom.  President of the sophomore class, she applies many of the lessons she has learned through CPSJ to her leadership role.  She explained, “As a CPSJ major, you’re able to see how conflict is everywhere, so that is helpful when it comes to dealing with conflict within groups of people.” As president of her class, she seeks to advance the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that have become a focal point of Soumah’s work.  Jansen’s leadership also extends to the Women’s Fellowship for Campus Ministry, the Office of Student Activities, and Learning Services, where she serves as a peer tutor.  Some of the interests of Jansen’s second major, English, are expressed by her position as community editor for The Mountain Echo, and her editorial roles for Lighted Corners, the Mount’s literary magazine, and Tolle Lege, the student journal of theology and philosophy. Jansen also writes a column for the local paper, The Emmitsburg News-Journal

The conflict, peace and social justice major helps students move beyond the classroom with a required internship or practicum experience, and a choice of specializing in global, domestic, or interpersonal conflict resolution. Graduating students understand what causes conflict and what brings about peace in the 21st century and are well equipped to address ethical and socio-cultural challenges to peacebuilding today. “At a time when international cooperation is more important than ever, the CPSJ major provides students with the background, training, and skills that will allow them to make important contributions in addressing real-world problems,” said Associate Professor of Philosophy Richard Buck, Ph.D., who is part of a team of faculty members from across the disciplines that supports the program. Joining Buck on the faculty team are Assistant Professor of History Elizabeth Strauss, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Sociology Kim Hansen, Ph.D.; and Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology, Criminal Justice and Human Services Department Jack Trammell, Ph.D. Professor and Chair of the English Department Indrani Mitra, Ph.D., observes that the program fills a much-needed space in the Mount’s curriculum.  “The CPSJ major,” she stated, “speaks directly to the University’s mission, preparing students to lead lives of significance through the work of conflict resolution and peace building at the local, national and international levels.”

As the world grapples with the many challenges that the year 2020 presented, it needs ethical leaders more than ever. Enthusiastic CPSJ students Shahanaaz Soumah and Emily Jansen confidently predict the program will continue to grow because it allows majors to select a track that best fits their talents, interests and career plans. Soumah has seen the practicality of the major in her personal development. “I never thought of myself as a trailblazer,” she said, “but I aim to show students how amazing this major is, and how it can be applied to just about any field.” Soumah and Jansen are prime examples of thriving Mount students.  From their rigorous work in the classroom, to their meaningful leadership positions on campus, they embody those who live out the Mount’s mission, not only to “be good” but also to “do good” in seeking peace.

Rebecca McDermott
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts