New master’s concentration set to prepare students for conflict-sensitive peacebuilding

Preparing peacebuilders for the field

The Carter School’s new master’s concentration in Peacebuilding will draw on partnerships with peacebuilding agencies in the Washington, D.C., area that have worked with past Carter School students like Nancy Dorcas (pictured) to build networks and skills in the peacebuilding field. 

Photo credit:
Photo credit
Ron Aira/Creative Services/George Mason University

For Agnieszka Paczyńska, a career as both an associate professor at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and as a peacebuilding professional who has worked with NGOs and U.S. government agencies alike has given her front-row access to observing the latest developments in peace and conflict studies.

“The peacebuilding field has been growing rapidly over the past couple of decades, which is reflected in the proliferation of organizations that work on peacebuilding both internationally and locally here in the U.S.,” Paczyńska said.

As the field grows, so too does its need for peacebuilders equipped with practical conflict resolution skills and training in ethical and reflective practice.

That’s why the Carter School has added a new, 15-credit Peacebuilding specialization to the roster of concentrations within its Master of Science degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

The master’s concentrations give students an opportunity to focus their 33-credit degree on different aspects of peace and conflict resolution. These specializations were designed to help students find success in the various subfields where conflict resolution techniques are critical, including but not limited to social justice activism, media and communications, humanitarian aid and development, mediation and dialogue, and policy and government.

For students pursuing a concentration in Peacebuilding, their coursework will equip them with “practical and professional skills in project design, management, monitoring and evaluation that will enable them to work in the peacebuilding field, primarily in NGOs and international organizations,” according to the program’s course catalogue.

To wrap up their concentration, students will be required to apply what they have learned outside of the classroom through a mandatory, 3-credit internship.

According to Paczyńska, who helped design the new initiative during the final academic year of her role as director of the Carter School’s master’s programs, it is the Peacebuilding concentration’s provision of hands-on skills that will distinguish it in the field.

Her experience conducting conflict assessments and program evaluations in places like Liberia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Tanzania has shown her that effective peacebuilding requires professionals who can tie knowledge of the theoretical foundations of peace and conflict to the practical skills needed to design and implement successful programs.

“What organizations are looking for are people who can hit the ground running when it comes to writing and managing grants that make peacebuilding work possible, and designing, managing, monitoring, and evaluating peacebuilding programs,” Paczyńska said. “They are also looking to hire people who have the leadership and management skills that make peacebuilding sustainable and effective.” 

While a focus on the intertwining of theory and practice has been a core feature of the Carter School’s curriculum since the school was first launched as a center in the 1980s, this new concentration has been specifically designed to maximize student preparedness for direct entry into the field after graduation.

“The way that this concentration puts its emphasis on the development of professional skills for peacebuilding is unique, and the internship and field experience opportunity that the program includes will play a pivotal role in the realization of this objective,” said Alpaslan Özerdem, dean of the Carter School.

He arrived at the school in 2019 with the creation of a more in-depth focus on peacebuilding within its master’s degree curricula as a major priority. His vision for the school’s master’s programs is informed by his nearly 25 years of experience leading research and teaching efforts in the field of peace and conflict studies.

In the course of that work, his experience with building transnational peacebuilding partnerships has shown him the essential role that collaboration plays in building and sustaining peace.

“Effective peacebuilding is all about good and meaningful community engagement throughout all its phases, from design and implementation to evaluation,” said Özerdem. According to him, the “appropriate participation of conflict-affected communities” in the design and implementation of peacebuilding programs is the “litmus test” for whether such programs will be effective.

That’s why the curriculum of the Peacebuilding concentration will focus not only on practical skills-building in areas such as program design and grant proposal management but also on instilling the principles and practices of conflict-sensitive peacebuilding.

“Our graduates will come out not only with skills like monitoring and evaluation but with a 35,000-foot understanding of the ethical challenges of working as a peacebuilder in the modern world,” said Thomas Flores, an associate professor who began his term as the school’s Director of Graduate Programs on June 1, 2020.

In this role, he has worked with other members of the Carter School’s leadership team to develop the concentration’s parameters and curriculum. He is currently finalizing partnerships with peacebuilding organizations that will provide internship placements and other mentorship opportunities to the concentration’s students.

The goal is for students to emerge from their master’s program not just with a diploma in hand but also with a portfolio of demonstrable experience with the practical work of peacebuilding, informed by an ethos that places reflective, conflict-sensitive practice at its center. 

According to Paczyńska, the incorporation of reflective practice into the Peacebuilding concentration draws upon the Carter School’s intellectual roots, while other elements of the curriculum have been designed with the direct input of peacebuilding organizations to “reflect [recent] cutting-edge developments in peacebuilding theory and practice.”

The format of the concentration is similarly innovative, providing opportunities for hybrid and online learning to allow students greater flexibility to “update their skill-sets and knowledge…without leaving their jobs,” according to Özerdem.

The initiative also has another source of inspiration: the long-standing commitment of the school’s namesakes, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, to sustainable and ethical peacebuilding.

“This new concentration is, in fact, all about how the Carters have been undertaking their peacebuilding work at the interfaces of human rights, conflict resolution, community development, and human security,” said Özerdem.

According to Özerdem, the concentration will help ground students in the “tradition of building peace the Carters’ way” while providing them with the skills and networks they need to gain employment in the sector, whether at the United Nations, international aid organizations, government agencies, NGOs, or local community organizations.

“The Carter School’s new concentration does something few programs can: it matches a laser-sharp focus on the skills prospective peacebuilders need to enter the field with the Carter School’s long reflection on peacebuilding as a social goal,” said Flores, noting that the creation of the concentration “confirms the Carter School’s commitment to innovating our programs and our thinking.” 

“I’m confident that graduates of the concentration will leave the [school] with valuable experience in the field and the kinds of skills that will make them attractive employees of peacebuilding organizations in Washington, D.C., the United States, and beyond,” he said.


Interested in pursuing an MS concentration in Peacebuilding? Contact our Graduate Admissions Office by emailing