Westmont Magazine A Lesson in Conflict
When Ryan Vitkus ’02 decided to spend a semester studying conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C., he didn’t expect to experience conflict first-hand. Only two miles from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, he witnessed the smoke and debris of terrorism. He also met Protestants and Catholics while traveling in Northern Ireland, putting faces on that enduring conflict.
“These experiences opened my eyes to the hateful world in which we live, where petty differences create major rifts between people,” he says.
“On Sept. 11 I felt isolated — not because I was studying regions far away — but because there wasn’t anything I could do to help with the situation just down the street.”
Ryan, a political science major interested in international affairs, chose to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., because he wanted to live in the midst of history. “You walk down the street and run into senators. You see people making policies that are affecting the rest of the country. You see history in the making,” he explains.
As an intern at the Genocide Prevention Center, Ryan focused on Molucas Indonesia. “The fact that most Americans have never heard of this region shows that Western media portray only what they want to show. But we should be aware of the human rights violations happening in this region.”
He put together information used in lobbying the Subcommittee on Human Rights in Congress. Later he learned the prime minister of Indonesia had intervened to stop some of the persecution. He’s not sure if his research and subsequent lobbying played a role, but he’s excited that things are beginning to change.
His group at American University had planned to spend two weeks in the Balkans studying the conflict there, but the events of Sept. 11 made it risky to send a team of Americans to a Muslim country. Instead, the students went to Northern Ireland.
Their travels took them to Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin to speak with people affected by conflict. Learning how the Irish cope with violence and view the future was intriguing. Influential people, including the first minister and other representatives from political parties and organizations, spoke with the group.
Other contacts included grass-roots organizers helping victims of violence. One group of former prisoners assists people re-entering civilian life after leaving jail. Not only do they face an environment with paramilitary activity, but their lives have changed because they’ve lost their families and jobs.
The trip to Ireland convinced Ryan there is a tremendous need for God in other countries. “The Northern Ireland con-flict is among ‘Christians,’” he says. “I learned that God isn’t necessarily present in a battle between denominations, which are man-made institutions.”
He was surprised at the many discussions of faith that took place among non-Christians at American University. “It was challenging to explain what I believe and why I believe it without being in the midst of other believers who could help me,” he notes.
“Westmont gave me a personal, spiritual, and academic foundation that helped me shape an appropriate world-view,” he says. He used this lens that Westmont helped him create to ask important questions : “What does it mean to be a Christian called into the world? What does it mean to be a Christian political science major?”
Ryan hopes to spend the summer after graduation back in Washington, D.C., interning at a senator’s office.
Seeing the need for cultural awareness in regions plagued by violence — such as Northern Ireland — made him realize he can do something to help. “I want to be a part of opening our culture’s eyes to other cultures’ ways of life,” he explains, “In doing that, you grow as a person of Christ.”