Robby Szolgyemy: On Conflict and Cultural Awareness

Wednesday, April 10, 2024
Robby Szolgyemy

Robby Szolgyemy is finishing his 4A term as a Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and Anthropology student, but when he began studying at the University of Waterloo, PACS was not on his radar at all. It was not until he was searching for electives to fill his first-year schedule that the program caught his eye. He was drawn to the seemingly straightforward program name that described exactly what they would be studying: peace, and conflict. Robby enrolled in PACS, hoping that, if anything, he might be able to glean some wisdom from deconstructing past conflicts in his life. However, as he started taking courses like PACS 323: Negotiation Theories and Strategies, he was surprised to find just how useful these skills and concepts could be.

Robby quickly picked up Peace and Conflict Studies as his second major and began taking more PACS courses. He was impressed by the applicability of PACS courses to his professional life, especially as a co-op student. Robby has worked in several professional environments where concepts like negotiation and conflict resolution have proven useful.

That’s what surprised me: Peace and Conflict Studies has such a wide range of courses and content that it can be genuinely applicable to some of the most corporate, least traditionally humanities-based environments.

From negotiating salaries to solving minor conflicts in the workplace, Robby has found ways to apply PACS concepts in his co-op positions at the University of Waterloo. Throughout his various placements, Robby has designed accessible LEARN courses, graded student papers, and collaborated with team members on tech-related projects. He noted that although he has been fortunate to work in social and collaborative environments, with minimal conflict, he still appreciates how PACS has taught him to approach conflict in such a way that “nothing spirals out of control.” His most recent co-op with Information Systems & Technology (IST) also brought in a new element of collaboration, as he was working with clients to assist them with technological difficulties and concerns. This role gave his conflict resolution skills, sharpened through the PACS program, a chance to shine through.

Tech issues can be frustrating, so it added the perspective of a client coming in, being agitated, and then you have to know how to resolve that conflict … How to smile at them and fix their issues as fast as possible if that is what they need. Or, if they just need some friendliness or a smile in their day, you can give them that as well.

As a PACS and Anthropology double major, Robby’s academic pursuits are not all PACS-related, but his studies in PACS, Anthropology, and Spanish have all complimented each other better than he could have imagined. In one of Robby’s favourite PACS courses, PACS 327: Cultural Approaches to Conflict Resolution, he really got to see how Anthropology and PACS crossed over with one another:

I took PACS 327 in my 2A term, and it was such an eye-opening experience. I realized: this is the direct link between my two programs! Cultural approaches … to conflict resolution. It was both of them intersecting.

Through the combined lens of his two majors, Robby has been able to delve into the distinct ways that people approach conflict within different cultures. “The way people reconcile, the way people are able to live together, the way people overcome their differences… it’s really fascinating.”

Robby has noticed the intersections between his majors not just in an academic setting, but also within real-world contexts. In a volunteer position at Reception House, an organization that helps with refugee resettlement in the Waterloo Region, he interacted with individuals from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, with varying degrees of English proficiency. This is where the skills and awareness he had developed proved especially useful.

Being able to have that intercultural awareness, to be able to adapt how you speak to someone, how you approach someone… that’s a perfect mixture of PACS and Anthropology.

Robby noted that in many ways, PACS even overtook his “original” major, simply because he enjoyed the sense of community within PACS. All the PACS courses he has taken brought something new to the table, whether it was analyzing war through literature and film, or learning about negotiation in the corporate world. The broad scope of the PACS program has reassured him that he does not have to limit himself to one career path as he looks to the future.

There’s a lot of different paths I could envision for my future… [PACS] has prepared me well for any avenue that I want to take.

In the future, Robby would like to explore the intersections of PACS and Anthropology through a participant observation approach to research. “I would be interested in living with a smaller, Indigenous group of people, and just learning the culture, learning the language, and analyzing their way of dealing with conflict. Because there are so many ways to engage with conflict, and our Western way is not the only way.”

Reflecting on his own experience in PACS, Robby gave this advice to prospective students:

Appreciate the flexibility that the program offers… Look at the PACS community and see if that is something you want to be a part of. Enjoy the flexibility, enjoy the community, and think about what future you can envision for yourself with PACS.

By Alivia Schill