Julia Gometz: How the Carter School taught me to think critically and be an effective leader

Julia Gometz (née Marcus, on the far right) with team members from the JustaPaz Conciliation Center in Bogotá, Colombia, from which she earned a mediation certificate following her graduation from ICAR (now the Carter School). Julia was connected with the center via Professor Emeritus Chris Mitchell.

By Julia Gometz (MS '93)

I graduated from George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) in May of 1993 with a master’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution—and regrettably, I have not been back since. 

I arrived at ICAR in September 1991, fresh out of Emory University’s undergraduate program in International Relations, having completed an internship at The Carter Presidential Center at Emory University, where my passion for conflict resolution blossomed.

When it was announced in July that the institute (which became a school in 2012) had been renamed the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, I was tickled to see the new connection between my two former “stomping grounds.”

My desire to connect with my alma maters stems from more than just fond memories. Much of my professional journey is rooted in and has been shaped by my education and experience at these fine institutions.

A Field Just Being Born

My first peek into the field of conflict resolution actually came during a semester away from Emory at American University’s Program on Conflict Resolution. Much like with study abroad programs, I spent the semester immersed in life in Washington, D.C.

As an undergraduate student exploring different disciplines, the topic of conflict resolution piqued my interest. It was a relatively new field, mysterious and intriguing. I loved exploring the idea of engaging academically with a discipline that was just being born.

When I returned to Emory after my program’s completion, I was eager to continue studying conflict resolution, which led me to two experiences that would go on to inform my work at George Mason University: mediation training at the Atlanta Neighborhood Justice Center, and an internship at The Carter Center.

Both opportunities had a link to President Carter, who was responsible for starting the court-based mediation programs that we have in the United States today. The Atlanta Neighborhood Justice Center claimed to be the first court-based mediation program in the country, and its 40-hour course trained me well (though when I arrived at ICAR, I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge, even though I was already a certified court-based mediator).

Whereas my mediation training allowed me to get an understanding for conflict resolution at the interpersonal, family, and neighborhood levels, my internship at The Carter Center introduced me to conflict resolution on an international scale. While there were many areas of focus at The Carter Center, my earlier experiences at American University allowed me to intern in the Conflict Resolution department. Each intern was assigned a couple of countries to monitor, research, and report on to our supervisor, who would compile all the research and give it directly to President Carter for regular updates. 

Missing media item.
Julia Gometz (left) and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter at The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo courtesy of Julia Gometz)

When I started interning there, I would see President Carter often. He always greeted everyone warmly and thanked people regularly.

This manner wasn't just reserved for those at The Carter Center. President Carter would come regularly to Emory’s campus, where I would see him at town hall discussions. He would speak whatever was on his mind and then spend most of the time taking random questions from the students and answering them candidly. He had a fantastic sense of humor, and his demeanor was fun, soothing, calming, full of personality, and inquisitive. He was kind. He was humble. And he was a gentleman.

As interns at The Carter Center, we met with President Carter a few times during my internship so that he could ask us directly about what was going on in each of our countries. I was assigned to Angola and Mozambique, which were both experiencing civil wars in the wake of Portuguese colonialism and in the midst (and aftermath) of the Cold War. President Carter was monitoring the situations in each country in the event that the conflicts heightened so he, Rosalynn, and their team would be prepared to potentially assist. As an intern, I felt highly valued and that my work mattered.

From Carter Center to Carter School

Although “conflict resolution” as a career was undefined and uncertain at the time I graduated from Emory, my experience at The Carter Center solidified my passion for it, and I knew I wanted to study more. There were about five graduate programs in the country at the time, but the program at George Mason University seemed to be the best.

During my graduate studies at what was then ICAR and is now the Carter School, I was fortunate enough to be offered a job as a graduate student research assistant with Dr. Chris Mitchell and Prof. Richard Rubenstein. I continued studying conflict in Africa, but my focus shifted to the Horn of Africa, where Dr. Mitchell’s research was at the time.

Missing media item.
Chris Mitchell (far left) and Julia Gometz (second from left) in San Sebastián, Spain, where they attended an international conference. Other students from the Carter School (then ICAR) also attended. (Photo courtesy of Julia Gometz)

My coursework offered me opportunities to dive deeper into the theory and practice of conflict resolution.

In Dr. Kevin Avruch’s class, I did a participant observation in Washington, D.C., of the Tigrayan and Oromo groups of Ethiopia.

I also attended an international conference in Guernica, Spain, with a group from George Mason, and because I speak both French and Spanish, I had the chance to translate conversations between participants.

On one occasion, I remember slightly changing the translation of the conversation to be more amicable and less hostile—on purpose. I can only admit this now. But it taught me in real time how important language is—and how slight nuances in translations can have a major impact on the dynamics of a conversation.

Upon leaving George Mason, I spent about five years working in the field of conflict resolution. I spent some time in New York City at Flushing Mediation Services and at New York University’s Center for War, Peace, and the News Media. I also conducted some international research in Bogotá, Colombia, and in Northern Ireland.

A Pivot on the Path to a Career in Conflict Resolution​

All of my direct work in the field of conflict resolution was thanks to the fantastic network and reputation of ICAR at George Mason.

Nevertheless, I did find it difficult to find steady, meaningful employment in the field. As my own career blossomed, I found that lawyers were beginning to have a greater presence in the field, and I felt pressure to go to law school if I wanted to continue a career in mediation. However, I was not interested in law school.

I ended up taking an unexpected, and perhaps unconventional, path through my passion for conflict resolution.

After meeting my husband and settling permanently in NYC, I decided to get an entry-level job at an investment bank, thinking that I could learn about corporate America and then identify career paths that could would allow me to incorporate my experience and education in conflict resolution. I became a mediator for the National Association of Securities Dealers (later FINRA)  while working with the Airlines Group at Morgan Stanley Equity Research. I was then promoted to associate analyst and introduced to the major airline executives.

The experience positioned me perfectly for my dream job. It had been five years (and three children) since I had begun work at Morgan Stanley, and I was dreaming of working closer to home in a position that could allow my passion and expertise in conflict resolution to shine.

In my role with Morgan Stanley, I was part of the team that took the recently established JetBlue Airways public. The JetBlue headquarters was one mile from my home, and as luck would have it, the company was looking for an “out-of-the-box” self-starter to create the Employee Relations Department. They didn’t want anyone traditional. With my conflict resolution background, I fit the bill.

At the time, my career path had not been a straight line, but this opportunity brought all of the pieces together. At JetBlue, I learned about servant leadership, which to me meant seeking the “win-win” options, an approach that resonated with what I had learned at the Carter School and The Carter Center alike. It was a company that understood “healthy conflict.” At the time, I didn’t know a company could be like this, and my peers were fascinated with the skills, knowledge, and thinking that I shared. It was a great collaboration, even giving me the opportunity to co-develop courses for the leaders on communication, leadership, conflict dynamics, empathy, and other concepts central to conflict resolution.

My education at what is today the Carter School at George Mason University gave me a framework for how to think, how to challenge, and how to collaborate in conflict. It gave me ample opportunities to immerse myself in new environments.

The concepts and skills I learned from my participant observation during Dr. Avruch’s class, for example, informed my work at JetBlue years later when I had to approach conflicts from the shoes of a flight attendant or a pilot or a mechanic.

Additionally, the collaboration and communication classes I took at George Mason University helped me work across the company (about 20 different departments in total) to develop the first employee policy handbook that every department was able to approve.

One of the most useful habits that was instilled in me during my experiences at both George Mason University and The Carter Center is the continual bridging of theory and practice. It’s a habit that has served me well. While most corporate leaders have reading lists and keep up with thought leaders, I also like to read emerging research. In addition, my work “in the field” of corporate America has allowed me to constantly link theory with what happens on the ground.

Some academics are out of touch with day-to-day operations and challenges in business, while many business leaders are running their businesses based on outdated approaches. To keep nimble, I like to be at the center of the best of both practice and theory, something I learned from great leaders and organizations—from my professors and colleagues at George Mason University to President Carter himself, whose convening of researchers and world leaders around pressing issues I was able to witness firsthand.

I’ve dedicated these past few years to my family (with four children now) and developing a business dedicated to win-win working environments for employees and employers, something that I call “Brandful.”

The conflict resolution principle of finding common ground to unite the parties is the basic premise of the Brandful approach, one that is centered on the essential role that the “brand” of a company or organization plays in providing that common ground.

Brandful is based on the idea that employees should seek to work at a company whose brand is in alignment with their own. They should not have to be a different person at work than at home. This means that when they come to work, they are able to bring a self that authentically believes in their company, from what it stands for to the products/services it delivers through the work of its employees. 

In such an environment, companies can also count on—and should empower—employees to put their best selves forward, speak up with suggestions, and behave like owners. Such a culture relies on a commitment to transparency, allowing conflict to be addressed in a healthy and constructive manner while also facilitating the design of policies and processes to prevent unhealthy conflict. 

As I reflect almost 30 years later on my wonderful and formative years at The Carter Center and at George Mason University’s now Carter School, I am reminded of how greatly I cherish my education at both institutions.

I firmly believe that everyone should get a degree in conflict resolution—it pertains to everything you do in life.

The facilitation, collaboration, and communication skills that are so vital to conflict resolution (and that are very much at the center of field today) were ahead of their time three decades ago.

Sometimes, after all these years, I am surprised that many in my industry have still not caught up with everything I learned at the now Carter School! I can only imagine what up-and-coming principles are being taught there today. 

Maybe it’s time for a trip back to Fairfax after all.