Virtual town hall with dean ushers in new phase of online community building at S-CAR

When Alpaslan Özerdem arrived at George Mason University in August 2019 to begin his term as the dean of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, he made community-building initiatives a top priority, seeking to bolster both the formal and informal opportunities for students, faculty, alumni, and staff to connect around a shared passion for peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

One such effort was the beginning of a new tradition: “Lunched-In with the Dean,” a weekly opportunity for the school’s community to gather for food and conversations in the John Burton Library at Vernon Smith Hall on the Arlington Campus.

Every Wednesday afternoon throughout the fall of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the normally quiet stacks of the John Burton Library came alive with the chatter of faculty mentoring students and alumni reuniting with old friends.

Now, like many spaces at George Mason University, the John Burton Library is empty. Over the last month, the university has moved more than 5,000 courses online in an effort to protect the health and well-being of its students, faculty, and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic wears on, it has become increasingly clear that new avenues for community building will need to be developed and expanded at the school. 

To that end, on Tuesday, April 14, Özerdem and the school’s faculty and staff marked a new tradition: the first virtual town hall to allow current and prospective students to hear about the school’s trajectory through the pandemic directly from its leadership and faculty.

Hosted over WebEx Events thanks to the technical expertise of Paul Snodgrass, the school’s director for technology and knowledge management, the town hall was guided by Özerdem and included a panel of faculty and staff voices, such as associate dean Julie Shedd, advisors Christie Jones and Charisse Cardenas, program directors Agnieszka Paczynska, Terrence Lyons, and Mary Schoeny, and incoming graduate programs director Thomas Flores.

In his opening remarks, Özerdem noted that the meeting was the first town hall since the school announced that it will become the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution on July 1, 2020.

He emphasized that the Carter School, along with George Mason University, is committed to supporting its students during the current crisis, and to learning from its community about how it can improve in its response.

“The sense of solidarity is so important, and we can do so much for each other,” Özerdem said, adding that the town hall was organized to discuss best practices and share a sense of community at the school.

A wide variety of community members tuned in, including both current and prospective students. The discussion covered a multitude of subjects, from questions related to the school’s pandemic response to inquiries about the school’s future coursework and curricula.

The well-being of the school’s students was a central topic of conversation and concern. 

“For many of our students, the main concern [during the pandemic] has just been mental health and well-being,” said Christie Jones, who is an Undergraduate Academic Advisor and Field Experience Coordinator at the school, as well as a PhD candidate.

She noted that the school’s students each have unique challenges that they are facing—and these go beyond the academic.

Headshot of a smiling black woman in a grey cardigan, black shirt, and red necklace.

Christie Jones, Undergraduate Academic Advisor

“Some of our international students have been stuck on campus, and several of them remain on campus as undergraduates, obviously without access to things like libraries, the bookstore, and relatively few options in terms of food and taking care of themselves in terms of personal safety,” she said, adding that many undergraduates are also experiencing financial concerns.

She emphasized that students who faced vulnerabilities before the pandemic are seeing those challenges compounded.

“Several of our students are undocumented, and are often primary bread earners in their homes,” Jones said. “And then we have a number of students who are marginalized in a variety of ways in terms of access to Internet, in terms of access to mental healthcare, physical healthcare. We have a couple of students living with disabilities or different abilities and having had to make adjustments to Blackboard.”

In these situations, academic anxieties are simply one part of an intricate web of difficulties that are often beyond students’ control.

“For many of us in the services arena, I think a lot of us are simply dealing with students trying to cope with this change,” Jones said, adding that on top of these concerns, students are also grappling with the grief of losing a sense of community at the school. 

It’s an issue that Özerdem is taking to heart.

“The pandemic has affected all of us, but in different ways. We obviously have different needs because of this,” he said.

He emphasized the Carter School’s dedication to meeting student needs. He also encouraged students to make sure to learn more about the resources based at University Life. To date, University Life has distributed more than $1 million in emergency assistance to more than 950 students, and it is continuing its “Patriots Helping Patriots” campaign to increase that amount to $1.5 million.

Most importantly, Özerdem invited students to be in touch with their advisors, faculty, and the school’s leadership—including himself and Shedd—to open up discussions on how best the school can support different needs during the pandemic.

“In times of crisis, our well-being is really critical,” he said. “We need to look after ourselves, but also others, as much as possible. And that sense of solidarity is really fulfilling.”

Shedd encouraged students to continue to reach out to the school’s advisors and leadership to communicate any difficulties they encounter as they endeavor to complete their coursework, noting that the school has been working with university officials, such as those at the libraries, to make previously unavailable resources accessible online.

The school’s leadership cautioned that even as the university’s coronavirus response settles into a period that may sometimes seem akin to normalcy, there are still many unknowns.

The university recently announced that its Summer 2020 courses will be delivered online. However, Özerdem said that the university is still considering options for how it will teach its Fall 2020 courses, including both online and “blended” possibilities.

Given the continuing period of adjustment, Özerdem emphasize that as the school’s response to the pandemic continues to evolve—and as the school moves forward with previously planned developments, like its shift to the Carter School and its review of degree program curricula—student input and feedback will be essential.

“[During] the next six months to a year, we’ll be looking at what we teach, how we teach, and how we can actually improve that with the current dynamics. And obviously, with the experience of the pandemic, that will be one of the issues,” he said.

As a school that focuses on peace and conflict resolution, the Carter School has an additional opportunity—and responsibility—to respond to the crisis from a place that emphasizes accessibility, well-being, and inclusion.

“In times of crisis and post-crisis, what’s the role of peace and conflict studies? What’s the role of the Carter School? After all, we are taking the name of the school from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who [have] dedicated their lives to the issues of human security, human rights, freedom, [and] equality," Özerdem reflected.

In setting the stage for how the Carter School will approach its programming and coursework to address both the current pandemic and the broader constellation of conflict resolution challenges affecting the world, the next few months will be crucial.

“Watch this space,” Özerdem said.