CRI students, Faculty, Advisory Board Members and the conflict resolution community show their enthusiasm for CRI's first practicum series, which began this past spring. Students first participated in an interpersonal practicum, which provided all students with a solid foundation in practicing the theory and skills learned in their course work and internships. Students were then provided an opportunity to gain experience in either environmental collaborative planning or international conflict resolution, depending on their individual interests.
CRI Co-Director Tamra Pearson d'Estrée explains why these practicums were added to the program, "The CRI faculty has long felt that what was missing in MA-level education in Conflict Resolution was an apprenticeship experience, where students are supervised doing the actual practice (not simulation) by experienced practitioner faculty members. Simulations have their usefulness in teaching and training, but there is no substitute for actual practice in preparing professionals."
The concepts behind the practicum curriculum are to provide students many opportunities to integrate theory and practice through actual practice: moving through the process of designing processes and interventions, planning the implementation, execution and evaluating the results. Therefore students are first required to complete the program core curriculum, which includes 40-hour mediation training.
The CRI Advisory Board, which contains several practitioners in the field, immediately saw the value of such practicums, both in terms of helping students develop connections with various practitioners and programs and increasing the marketability of our graduates by providing opportunities to gain 'real-world' experience while still in school.
While the MA program has long required an internship, which allows students to focus on their primary areas of interest and target specific organizations, the practicum offers something unique. "While internships expose students to actual practice settings, they are often more like observers, and the type of experience they obtain from these settings varies widely. In order to provide the experience students need to be employable when they graduate, CRI offers the practicum as an intensive supervised apprenticeship," said d'Estrée.
Although students are not expected to achieve full competency through the practicums, the consensus in academia and even among CRI's own Advisory Board members, is that this new curriculum component will result in graduates with the kind of clinical experience that makes them stand out in a competitive job market.
All graduate students began the practicum by solidifying their conflict resolution skills in the interpersonal course, taught by CRI Professors Ruth Parsons and Cynthia Savage. This course provided opportunities for students to first observe mediation services at Jefferson County Mediation Services (JCMS), then to conduct co-mediation themselves while being supervised by the instructors. The corresponding seminar series provided students with a forum to share their experiences, to learn from each other and to relate their prior course work to their new mediation practice. Parsons and Savage were there throughout, helping them face the unexpected challenges that arise for new practitioners and develop their skills in reflection and evaluation that will continue to help them throughout their careers.
Students reported they liked the structure using co-mediation. Because they worked with different students throughout the course, they were able to learn more from each other. Use of the reflective practice guides provided by Parsons and Savage helped students "understand in the moment how their actions affected other people" as well as help them identify their interests and overcome their fear of making mistakes because the guides allowed them to "acknowledge them and move on". "Ruth and Cindy helped theory come alive so the students could really learn it", said one student. Other students called the experience "transforming" and expressed a willingness to help the next cohort of students in their role-playing exercises or by co-mediating.
Students opting for the environmental track worked under CRI Professor Laura Kaplan to help staff at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) develop their strategies to manage the park as an official Wilderness Area -- a status recently granted to the park by the U.S. Congress. This project allowed students to gain experience in the collaborative planning side of conflict resolution, applying more of the theories and skills they have learned in the MA program.
These skills are critical in large-scale projects in which no particular person or team is in charge, as is the case for the RMNP overall strategic plan. The CRI team is helping the RMNP staff think through the steps in putting together the overall plan to achieve their goals. Because the new Wilderness Area has a specific definition, RMNP is asking the CRI team's help in examining the many operating systems within the Park so they can better monitor and evaluate the four qualities in the definition: imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable, outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation, at least five thousand acres of land, and contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
One of the challenges faced by this track is the nature of working on a longer-term project with an actual client as they often do not operate on the academic quarter structure. Environmental practicum students report they learned the importance of being flexible.
Students with an interest in international conflict resolution work had the opportunity to work with Seeking Common Ground Executive Director Erin Breeze on the organization's inter-group intervention program called Building Bridges for Peace. This program brings together Israeli, Palestinian and American teens for a summer camp in the Colorado mountains during which participants acquire skills in communications, cooperation and cohabitation, so they can become agents of change in their daily lives.
Gaining practical experience facilitating in international conflict usually requires going abroad, and is still recommended for students with this particular interest, but this practicum allows students to start practicing right here in Colorado. d'Estrée explains the experience, "Our students go through the same experiences the camp staff go through to prepare them to work with teens from groups in conflict. They help to design assessment tools to monitor what is happening in the encounter and the kind of changes campers experience. And they learn how the various exercises they watch campers going through together are rooted in various theories of change and of intergroup relations."