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Peace & Conflict Studies Blog

PCS Alumni panel

PCS Alumni Reflect on Leadership

Taking place on November 27 in the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall, the Peace and Conflict Studies alumni panel brought together a diverse group of accomplished recent graduates for a wide-ranging conversation about how the worldview, knowledge, and skills they developed during their time with PCS have shaped their professional trajectories. In a discussion facilitated by Professor Lee Smithey, the panelists delved into their most cherished memories from Swarthmore, explored the challenges of weaving together theory and practice, and shared their own evolving concepts of leadership in their respective fields. The alumni spoke candidly about their experiences balancing professional success with personal integrity in their post-college journeys, and offered practical advice for navigating conflict and finding passion beyond Swarthmore.

PCS Alumni panel

In true PCS fashion, the post-graduation paths chosen by the panelists reflect their commitment to social good. All of them find themselves in moments of transition, either on the cusp of growing beyond their current fields, or immersed in postgraduate programs learning new ways to create change. Seeking to prioritize values beyond income, ShaKea Alston ’17 is shifting out of asset management and marketing, in search of work that better aligns with her passions. Mosea Esaias ’17, who studied abroad in Northern Ireland, was inspired by the contrasts he saw there between for-profit and nonprofit organizations to pursue quantitative metrics of impact and the double bottom line business philosophy as tools of social responsibility. He is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth business school, and hopes to eventually apply pragmatism in leveraging the resources of venture capital for social impact. As he puts it, “the revolution must be financed.” Working in philanthropic strategy at Geneva Global, Lisa Kato ’19 is uniquely positioned to support disadvantaged communities by directing resources towards initiatives for systemic change, but is also cognizant of the limits of philanthropy—for instance the tendency to favor shorter-term solutions—and is beginning to wonder where she can be the most effective. Benjamin Stern ’20 is a JD candidate at Harvard Law school, where he is trying to reconcile the grand theories of change he encounters in the classroom with the often cautious, “defensive” behavior of many real-world social justice organizations. He hopes to see more daring, high-leverage efforts from progressives, and intends to use his legal training carve a niche at the intersection of labor law, environmental justice, and electoral politics. Finally, Emily Uhlmann ’19 is looking to expand her horizons beyond her vantage point as Director of Public Affairs at the communications firm SKDK, and has recently applied to law school.

PCS Alumni panel

The alumni credit PCS with showing them how to engage with the world and its complexity by applying curiosity and empathy at all levels. ShaKea was introduced to the concept of “radical humanization” by now-Department Chair Professor Sa’ed Atshan. The notion that each and every person’s perspective is built on a lifetime of equally valid experiences reminds her to approach even the starkest disagreements with forbearance. Emily also relies on radical humanization in building bridges between divided communities, particularly on the subject of the ongoing violence in Gaza, where she feels torn between Jewish community spaces and leftist organizing spaces. She finds it easier to facilitate difficult conversations by appealing to shared humanity in real life, rather than on social media, and sees a central role for narratives of lived experience in sustaining a mandate for action, as well as fostering mutual understanding amidst ideological diversity. Similarly, Ben learned firsthand from working with local Pennsylvania electoral campaigns how much easier it is to find common ground when people across the political aisle feel like their stories and concerns are being heard. PCS trained the alumni to listen closely while simultaneously thinking critically about systemic issues. Lisa uses the analytical language she learned from her courses to challenge dynamics of power and trust in the world of philanthropy, beginning with the fundamental contradiction of a sector built on donations from the very people responsible for the inequities it seeks to address. She observes that the environment of scarcity and competition created by donors prevents grantees from coming together to dream bigger, but that such collaboration is essential to solve some of the most entrenched issues confronting society—a sentiment echoed by Mosea, who believes that sweeping change takes both fine-grained technical skills and the ability to think and work at the big-picture level.

PCS Alumni panel

Having experienced and exercised leadership firsthand, the panelists have come to see it as a democratic practice. In their view, a leader’s power needs to be earned and shared, rather than taken for granted. Mosea, for instance, saw in his first job as a public school English teacher that his students responded much better when he stopped demanding that they take their work seriously, and switched to persuading them that it was important instead. Their definition of a leader is someone who is willing to take a back seat and adopt more of a listening role, eschewing the limelight in order to observe people’s strengths and delegate responsibilities accordingly. This quality of quiet reflectivity is embodied by their professional role models. Lisa, Emily, and Ben all remember being inspired by authority figures—whether a manager, a high-profile client, or Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon—who earned their trust by being attentive, empathetic thought partners.

The alumni have plenty of advice for soon-to-be graduates. Confidence is key, and the first step to embodying it is shedding one’s imposter syndrome: in Shakea’s words, “you are not an admissions mistake…you belong here as much as everyone else.” On a similar note, Ben suggests striking a balance between planning and spontaneity in thinking about the future: he himself has stumbled into every opportunity that he’s really loved. While students shouldn’t over-strategize, it’s also never too early to start settings themselves up for success. The panelists all agree that Swarthmore is a perfect environment in which to develop the transferable skills to really thrive in the professional world. First, time management. While many students might experience college as a time of late nights and overflowing schedules, Lisa and Shakea suggest reframing it as an opportunity to learn to multitask, juggle deadlines, and find a sustainable daily routine. Equally important is the ability to communicate across ideological differences. Mosea and Emily point out that Swarthmore, with its diverse student body, is a great place to practice engaging with varying perspectives. Students should bear in mind, however, that the college environment is very much a bubble—Ben recalls the culture shock he experienced when law school brought him into contact with students from even more disparate personal and political backgrounds. Emily and Lisa remind students to approach unfamiliar environments and people with “more questions than answers”; they stand to learn more by staying curious, keeping an open mind, and setting preconceived notions aside. Lisa observes that louder voices tend to be overrepresented in real-world conversations just as they are in the classroom, but that some of the most thoughtful insights come from those who take more time to listen and properly formulate their responses.

PCS Alumni panel

The panelists advise students considering further education to look for balance between depth and breadth in their training. While the professional world often rewards specialization, successful leaders also need to draw on a broad base of general knowledge in order to adapt to unfamiliar situations. Mosea and Ben caution that postgraduate programs are very focused environments: graduate students are taught to look at the world through a specific, narrow set of lenses. One way to prepare is to make the most of Swarthmore to broaden one’s perspective: as Mosea notes, it’s easier for a generalist to become a specialist than the other way around. Emily recommends taking advantage of the cross-registration system to explore intersectionality between different disciplines, while Mosea suggests pursuing PCS in conjunction with a complementary field like economics to gain access to a wider set of tools and skills, as well as to lay a foundation for financial stability and the freedom to dedicate oneself to social change.

PCS Alumni panel

More than a place for professional development, college is also a time for deep personal growth. Some alumni found meaning in extraordinary experiences—for instance Emily, who minored in theater and learned to make sense of the senseless in her senior capstone project, a 24-hour production of the absurdist play “The Bald Soprano.” For Mosea and Ben, Swarthmore was where they took their first steps along their future professional paths: some of Mosea’s earliest experiences with leadership came about through his involvement in student government, while a class trip to Palestine/Israel with Professor Atshan cemented Ben’s interest in organizing and activism. Many of the panelists’ favorite moments are anchored in the supportive community they found at Swarthmore. Lisa connected with other students through the language of food, and has fond memories of endless barbecues and dessert parties. Bonds with faculty members also played a significant role in the alumni’s Swarthmore experience; Shakea recalls when Professor Atshan comforted her in a moment of indecision over whether to accept a job offer. The alumni warn that professional success is insufficient without personal fulfillment. Emily and Shakea stress the mental health benefits of maintaining hobbies like dance, theater, and painting, no matter how busy one’s life becomes. Social relationships are another pillar of healthy work-life balance, and the panelists are united in reminding students to be deliberate in making time for their friends—as Shakea puts it, “you’ll never live five minutes away from them again.”

PCS Alumni panel

The PCS alumni panel was a window into how the curiosity, empathy, and intellectual rigor of PCS translate into tangible skills and valuable perspectives in the real world, and a reaffirmation of the enduring value of a liberal arts education. For the alumni, it was an invitation to look back and reflect on how much they’ve grown and learned in their professional lives. For students, it was an opportunity to see through the eyes of their predecessors, as they begin to imagine their own lives after Swarthmore. And for faculty, it was a chance to catch up with old friends, and marvel at how far they’ve come.