PACS Student Profile: Olivia Miller

Olivia Miller (Liv) is a University of Waterloo student who doesn’t let challenges prevent her from pursuing the change they want to enact in the world. She is double majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and Social Development Studies (SDS) and is set to graduate at the end of this fall term. However, Liv wasn’t always a PACS student. They started with SDS and added PACS as a second major later on. They credit this change to PACS 202: Conflict Resolution, a course she enjoyed after taking it on as an elective. Specifically, they appreciated learning certain concepts and techniques for resolving interpersonal conflicts: 

I really enjoyed that course. I remember learning about how to apologize properly, and a bunch of really  [meaningful] strategies for how to engage with interpersonal conflicts. It was a really cool area that my [then only] program, SDS wasn’t covering as much. SDS does a good job of covering a lot of ground, but that also means that it’s difficult to focus on things like interpersonal conflicts.

Looking back on her degree, Liv appreciates the variety of topics that she’s been able to explore through PACS ranging from the basic theory behind peace-and-conflict dynamics, to real-world examples and case studies of peace-and-conflict related issues that bring the theory learned in the classrooms to life. This helped Liv not only to navigate relationships with people that they frequently interacted with in her everyday life, but also to navigate the global, national, and municipal social issues that impact her in very real but complicated ways. She describes it as finding a direction on how to make the world a better place and make improvements regarding these issues. Liv tries to make an impact on the issues that they care about in practical ways, but this effort and involvement began for her before she was a PACS student – in fact, before she was an undergrad. 

She shares that when she was in high school, she was involved with an organization called The Umbrella Project on their very small team. The Umbrella Project works to create a curriculum of social and emotional learning skills, for students that range from kindergarten to high school. This would allow teachers at any school to teach these soft skills on a monthly basis, with the goal of creating a framework that allows for the prioritization of concrete interpersonal development and mental health education in schools. Liv adds that something like this is not standardized in school systems, or at least, was not at the time that they were involved in this project. It would have to be implemented by someone at that specific school or purchased from a specific school board. Liv’s specific involvement with this organization was to support the facilitation of workshops for the schools. Looking back, she observes that it was a great way to learn some PACS skills including facilitation skills before she was in the program. As a PACS student, she has had the chance to work for another organization called The Ripple Effect Education (TREE), where they facilitated workshops for Kindergarten and grade 2 classes. When asked about the lessons they were able to learn through working for TREE, she noted that children are a lot better at understanding and applying complex interpersonal concepts than is often assumed about them. 

It was really interesting to see how children grasp concepts about peace. They’re able to apply it to how they treat their peers in their classroom and their families at home. It’s so encouraging to see, and emphasizes my belief in the impact of this kind of work.

They also note that PACS courses such as PACS 313Community Conflict Resolution, made them more aware of the barriers to wellness that exist in our society, like oppression and marginalization that can affect people in ways that one normally wouldn’t know of as being related to mental health. They shared that they co-founded a mental health initiative called the Bridges of Hope project during their last year of high school and first year at the university. They observed that there was a shift in their thinking when they started learning more about things like intersectionality in PACS. They would be working with youths from all different backgrounds and identities with completely unique life experiences and traumas, and it was important for them to "recognize things like power and privilege dynamics", they said. Liv notes how PACS as a program and her experiences in the field have complimented each other. She values the framework laid out in PACS courses that allows her to practice the concepts they learned as she applies them in fieldwork. They also value the ability to reflect on fieldwork experiences in grounded ways through PACS course discussions, assignments, papers, and readings - especially on improvements that can be made if they were to start or participate in other initiatives or projects similar to the ones she’s been involved in. Reflecting on lessons learned from the field, Liv shared that:

As a PACS student, I have had the opportunity to not only learn formally from PACS professors but also from community leaders at Bridges of Hope. One of the leaders I have worked with taught me something that transformed my view of advocacy work. They said,  "Advocacy is like a soccer field. Sometimes you play center forward with the spotlight on you, running the ball up to the net to make a goal. Other times, you’re playing on defense and midfield, where your role is to support the other people that are front and center." They observed that these roles are all equally important when it comes to accomplishing the collective goal. It’s all about where you’re at, what [role you play], and what you’re called to do at that time.

When reflecting on her time in PACS, Liv noted some gaps she observed in some PACS courses, including the absence of queer theory, practices, and queer advocacy history in PACSHowever, Liv did note that she was able to supplement her PACS degree with some PACS-approved courses such as Political Science (PSCI) 370: Gender in PoliticsWhen forecasting her time after graduation, she surmises that PACS will have a very helpful and important role in how they support people of various backgrounds, identities, and experiences. As some closing thoughts she notes that it’s very important to know that, as an advocate, it’s not her role to have all of the answers, but to simply be there - to walk with people and create a stabilizing community environment - while the people that are being supported find the answer that’s always been within themselves. 

I’ll never truly know what someone’s going through, and how things that don’t affect me affect them. Listening to them and how various factors affect them is so important. While my role is not to have all the answers, it is my role to be there as a bridge to wellness.

This is one of the many lessons they walk away from studying PACS and SDS at the University of Waterloo.