Conflict Transformation vs. Transformational Travel
In my life, I have been blessed to be able to study abroad, work abroad and to travel extensively overseas. I’ve been a TEFL instructor, a tour guide and a study abroad director. I have experienced the ins and outs of the food and beverage industry on several continents. I’ve backpacked Europe and traveled alone in the Middle East. All of these experiences have the power to transform an individual. I like to refer to them as ‘transformational travel.’ However, there is one form of ‘transformational travel’ that I feel is often overlooked, and that is ‘conflict transformation.’
By my definition, ‘conflict transformation’ is working for an organization advocating for and facilitating a more peaceful tomorrow in the world’s conflicted regions.
This type of work can be pursued in places like Israel/Palestine or Darfur, or in more familiar places, perhaps even in your local neighborhood. You could work with a community group or with a charity, in the public sector or with an international organization, such as the UN, the OSCE, or Amnesty International.
Conflict transformation encompasses everything from ‘light-hearted’ duties, such as facilitating events or art projects to increase cross-cultural understanding, to very intense, high-level mediation between combatants. You could provide infrastructure to a community in need or shape policy to increase inclusivity in sectarian societies.
Volunteering overseas is noble and necessary. I would advocate for it as much as any other form of travel. However, why not do the same type of work throughout your career, get paid for it and have a more sustainable, long-term impact?
I would like to share with you my ‘transformation travel’ experience, as well as how to find a meaningful and sustainable career abroad.
Lesson #1: Study abroad for no less than a year!
To understand where I am now, you have to know where I have been. While pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in International Studies, I enrolled in a year-long study abroad program at Ulster University in sunny Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 2008 – a far cry culturally and topographically from my native California.
Ulster University: Magee Campus, Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland – photo credit to the author
No, I did not go for the sunny beaches of Barcelona or the sophistication of London or Paris. I (regrettably) did not immerse myself in French, Arabic, or Mandarin. Nope, I just spent my time trying to comprehend what Irish people were saying.
This experience would lay the foundation of a career path that continues to lead me around the world today. It instilled in me a deep interest and empathy in the post-conflict environment Northern Ireland was in at the time. It would take roughly another six years of exploring vocations in the study abroad industry, hospitality/tourism, and TEFL for me to bear the fruits of this experience. Eventually, I was able to uncover a career that encompasses all the things that appeal to me: travel, culture, philanthropy and, most importantly, continued transformation.
Lesson #2: Get a degree abroad
In 2016, I was accepted into an MA program in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, returning me to Northern Ireland. It was the connections I made during that year that led to the life I lead now. This is where education overseas and becoming immersed in a culture is so important, most especially for the aspiring, life-long traveler.
The connections I made at Queen’s have provided me with every job I have had since moving back to Ireland, from volunteer positions up to the full-time job I have now. People are more likely to hire who they know. Being physically present and immersed in the local culture will increase your ability to find work.
Lesson #3: Make Connections
A master’s degree is not necessary to build a career in Conflict Transformation. You can gain visas through other means. That said, if you want to work with a high-level international organization, post-graduate education is a plus. Here’s a guide for obtaining a MA in Peace and Conflict Resolution, if you’re interested.
I chose to come back to school because I had pursued other fields and was ‘out of the game,’ so to speak. I will say, landing in a foreign country without the connections to academics would have made it much more difficult to find work. Academics are connected to NGOs and international organizations. They often run them or collaborate with them on projects. I now work for one of my professors who runs a community organization. However, I have no doubt there are other avenues to success in this field, and they will vary from country to country.
Where can I find work?
Conflict Transformation can be pursued in the Balkans, Israel/Palestine, Colombia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Lebanon – the list is endless. The field is open to anyone with empathy, relevant qualifications, and a willingness to explore the unknown.
If further education is not your thing, starting with an international aid organization such as the Red Cross is another good way to go about it. Faith-based organizations are another great avenue, as they have global connections and are often needed in conflict zones for mediation, but know the effects of short term missions trips and invest your time wisely. Many countries hand out visas readily and inexpensively to religious workers. Be sure to heavily research the ethics behind any organization you consider. Here are 8 things every volunteer organization should provide, and how to know if you’re volunteering or participating in voluntourism (and what that means).
There are many institutions where you can gain certifications in humanitarian aid. If a Ph.D. in any of the social sciences is on your radar, you could use connections from previous education to extend your stay in a country and further bolster your career.
Learning another language can be the difference between you and another candidate scoring a position. Bilinguality will significantly increase the number of jobs available to you. Lastly, pursuing a certification in mediation will also enhance your resume and will be useful for any kind of work in peacebuilding. Conflict Transformation is a very communicative field; being able to identify and utilize nuances in language is critical.
I now work for an organization in Northern Ireland that conducts research and facilitates programs and art projects on an intercultural basis.
We challenge the entrenched and oppositional identities that have lead people into conflict, often utilizing the arts to help build commonality and empathy between people from different backgrounds. This work stretches beyond our borders, which provides further opportunities to use the expertise I’ve learned here to aid in other conflicts overseas.
My initial transformative experience in 2008 has now allowed me to live and work in the part of the UK which will be affected most heavily by Britain’s vote to leave, an opportunity that would never have been available to me had I not ventured abroad.  I look back at myself, sitting in state college classrooms in California, yearning to be a part of, and perhaps influencing, something of extreme historical significance.
I can tell you for a fact that if I hadn’t become fully immersed in the local culture, this job, and all the possibilities that come with it would not be open to me.
‘Conflict Transformation’ affords me the opportunity to impact others positively while continuing to live abroad.
If travel is one of your passions, why not find a permanent path to full-time travel? While packaged programs may temporarily satisfy an itch, they won’t cure the most chronic of travel bugs.
For me, it all started in Northern Ireland. I feel it only right to pay that transformation forward and give back to the lovely people and culture that helped form me all those years ago. If a life overseas spent helping others is something you would like to pursue, I hope you’ll join me in transforming other regions of the world that are in need of your positive influence and empathy.
If you dedicate yourself to ‘transformational travel,’ it is not the world that transforms you, but you who transforms the world.