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Student takes research work to Oregon conference

September 02, 2008

A class specifically designed to help incoming Arizona State University freshmen is having a ripple effect that has been felt as far away as Portland, OR.

Samantha Miller, a graduate of ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, featured the research she conducted prior to teaching ASU 101 to incoming freshmen as the foundation for a presentation at the Peace and Justice Studies Association conference in September at Portland State University. She discussed the topic of peace education and sustainability during the “Building Cultures of Peace” conference.

“I was hired to teach ASU 101 during its first semester last fall, and a major component of the course is helping our freshmen understand what being a part of the New American University means to them,” says Miller, who graduated from New College in 2007 with a B.A. in English. “The more I researched for the class, the more the research began to influence my own course of study, which was an exciting process.”

Her presentation focused on the connection between the teaching of sustainability and peace, and then explored the possibility of testing the new paradigm through ASU’s model of the New American University – a vision promoting excellence in its research and among its students and faculty, increasing access to its educational resources, and working with communities to positively impact social and economic development.

“There is so much potential within the field of sustainability,” she says, adding that she attended two days of Center for Applied Non Violent Action & Strategies (CANVAS) training while at the conference. “I feel ASU has really placed itself at the front lines of this movement. Sustainability is all about rethinking the way we relate to our environment, and we can’t do that without rethinking the way we relate to each other.

“Sustainability might be a way we can more easily talk about peace,” says Miller. “Learning to ask the question ‘Is this a sustainable practice?’ would invariably lead to more peaceful choices, in my opinion. This is where I think the New American University could be of great benefit to our society, because the model already presupposes an effort to teach sustainable practices.

“The idea of ‘inclusion’ versus ‘exclusion’ runs parallel to the ecologically sustainable design of biodiversity, while supporting social justice and quality of life, which are both social sustainability indicators. Global engagement and social embeddedness promote an understanding of our place in the world and inside of our immediate communities, and also encourage us to explore the interconnectedness and interdependencies of us all.”

Since her spring graduation from New College on ASU’s West campus, Miller has enrolled in the college’s Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program that she describes as “a perfect fit for me” and one that will allow her to branch out.

“The program is fantastic for me since it provides a solid foundation for interdisciplinary research and what ‘interdisciplinary’ actually means – the history, the theory, the methodologies. It allows for such freedom within your topic of study.

“My interests cross so many disciplines that I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed into any single area, but I do need that base of support and guidance. In many ways the program is a lot like learning to read a road map. Now that I know how to get from point A to point B, I can follow wherever my research may take me.

For the immediate future, it took her to Portland and exposed her to new ideas and new perspectives.

“What really attracted me to the Peace and Justice Studies Association and the conference in particular was the idea of academics and activists working side by side for the same goals,” says the mother of two, who lives in Phoenix. “Research and implementation go hand in hand in my mind, and that’s what the conference was all about.

“The association itself is so wonderfully interdisciplinary – not only that it gathers professionals from vastly differing fields, but that it’s bringing together all of these fields to create a new dialogue.”

Miller found herself in heady company. The three-day event examined historical, current and potential future elements of the local, regional, national and transnational struggles toward peace and justice by peaceable means. Among those presenting were Betty Reardon, Professor Emeritus, Teachers College, Columbia University; Kathy Kelly, founder, Voice for Creative Nonviolence; Kayse Jama, founder, Center for Intercultural Organizing; Catherine Thomassen, M.D., president, U.S. Physicians for Social Responsibility; and Marjorie Cohen, president, National Lawyers Guild.

In the meantime, Miller says her New College coursework and her presentation in Portland are closely linked.

“I am a strong supporter of the ‘whole-person’ philosophy when it comes to education, because I believe there is nothing more important to the well-being of a society than the character of its citizens,” she says. “Many students come here very much focused on what type of job ASU can help them get, not on what type of career they might love. We are so much more than what we ‘do.’ I think the liberal arts speak to who we ‘are.’”

And is she ready to take her place as an expert on ASU’s vision of the New American University and what it means for students to understand and appreciate their place in the community, and about how they might channel their interests and passionately apply them to a real-world setting?

“I’m happy with the outcome of my research, but I also know that I have barely scratched the surface of this topic.

“That’s what a Ph.D. program is for, right?”