Jessica Trijsburg, Class 15 (2011-2013)
Twenty Blogs for 20 Years
Jessica Trijsburg elected to pursue a master’s degree at UNC’s School of Education with her Rotary Peace Fellowship, focusing on researching and developing methodologies to promote understanding of emerging and stigmatized religious groups within mainstream society. After graduation in 2013, she served for five years on the city council of Melton, Australia as coordinator for community capacity, managing a portfolio which included community engagement and development as well as interfaith, intercultural, and reconciliation issues. Jessica is now a Research Fellow in City Diplomacy at the Melbourne Centre for Cities and is completing her PhD in Equitable Inclusion and Community Resilience at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
For me, the Peace Fellowship was – and is – all about the people: the truly extraordinary peacemakers one rubs shoulders with and those who support them. But that’s peace, isn’t it? People. And that’s Rotary. Everything about the Fellowship experience is made possible by the grace and commitment of those involved – the Fellows, of course, but equally the center’s directors and administrators, the professors, and the many, many Rotarians who volunteer their time and their resources to make the whole thing possible and who truly believe in our collective capacity to create change. To be gifted with the hope of such a group of people is truly extraordinary – the weight of expectation is heavy at times, to be sure, but it is ultimately the greatest compliment.
The education I received at UNC and Duke was truly second to none. Both are world-class institutions in their own right, but the individual connections and conversations and opportunities came largely from interactions within the Peace Center. It was these often casual, ad-hoc, sideline conversations that were transformative for me. To sit with the most renowned of professors, co-designing seminars and discussing peace from different angles – me offering the unrefined enthusiasm and commentary of youth, them offering decades of experience with patience and deep listening. I have multiple notes and messages from professors at both Duke and UNC urging me on, offering support, and providing generous guidance. The Fellowship gave me a voice in more ways than just through my academic progress, and when I have faced difficulties since, I have returned to these messages of solidarity and confidence.
Rotary Peace Fellows truly changed my life – and they continue to do so. I am thankful to Rotary for continuing to invest in this program and create more Fellows. Indeed, I spent this past Friday with a recent graduate from the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and Saturday with two others – both of whom I’ve met through subsequent Rotary International Peace Symposia. There is a unique bond shared by peacemakers, heightened by the shared experience of the Fellowship, regardless of the center or cohort. We are a tribe – our work and our purpose are intrinsically connected, and we hold a unique ability to support and inspire each other. Peace work is important – critical to our safety, our lives, and our survival. Yet, it is hard. It is subject to politics, economies, societies, and environments, and it is easy to become despondent at times – to question one’s efficacy and ultimate purpose. I was fortunate some years ago to be present at a session at the Sao Paolo Rotary Peace Symposium wherein Peace Fellows discussed the cost of peacebuilding for them personally: the divorces, the PTSD, the fractured sense of self. This work is not just hard – it can be spirit-breaking as we see conflict again erupt, politics trump social welfare, and hatred shatter brotherhood. This is where the network of Rotary Peace Fellows offers magic – it offers solidarity, support, and inspiration in addition to the opportunity to be in unified communion and to find respite in camaraderie before returning to wage peace in the world. The relationships I developed through my Fellowship – with my own cohort, with those before and after, and the many others I’ve met since – are some of my most treasured and enduring relationships.
During my Fellowship, I interviewed a number of Fellows for a project to better understand the specific experiences of those coming to North Carolina from conflict and post-conflict zones. We discussed divergent experiences of studying in a nation – and a state – that offers seemingly infinite career, economic, political, and social opportunities, yet where gun carriage is common and associated signage everywhere; where personal safety is curtailed by multiple policy and social service limitations (a reality I, too, experienced all too closely); where we received university text messages warning of violent crimes committed on or near campus; where conflict abroad was often poorly understood, or its realities reduced to jokes in bars; where large highway signs warned us that gangs of prisoners were at work nearby under the gaze of automatic weapons; where race was intrinsically intertwined with daily life. I had many conversations with Fellows during the two years, but these were some of the most impactful for me in understanding the ways that culture is experienced by those foreign to it. I felt foreign in North Carolina, and I didn’t have any of the social or structural barriers that others did – I was just identifiable by the way I said ‘banana’ and my moments of shock when encountering a privatised health system. The deep trust that these Fellows, and others, afforded me in sharing their stories and their lives with me is something that has profoundly shaped my understanding of the world and my work since. I have carried this through roles in local government, refugee health, and now city climate change diplomacy. These stories have helped shape the services, policies, and programs that others have now benefited from half a world away. Such is the immeasurable impact of this Fellowship.
Thank you, Susan, Jim, and Francis, the rest of the board (former and current), Barry and the host district, and my host club Hillsborough Sunrise who had the very coolest breakfast meetings at a real-life diner with a waitress called Tinkerbell. And thank you Chris, Amy, Jay, and Adrienne. You are always, always in my heart and I am forever grateful to you for being my family when I was so very far from home. May peace prevail on earth.