By Laurie Smolenski, 2015-17 Rotary Peace Fellow, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
I’ve just completed 18 months as a Peace Fellow at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. A highlight was spending three months in Mexico City for my applied field experience. This is a cornerstone of the University’s Peace Fellow program, through which Fellows take on a project or internship outside of Australia. I interned with the Mexico City office of the MacArthur Foundation, which supports peace and justice initiatives globally.
As part of that work, I researched the 2014 disappearance of 42 students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The boys still have not been found and no justice has been served; it is clear that the Mexican state was involved.
I became fascinated by the response of Mexican civil society, which galvanized international attention and demanded a fair investigation despite state corruption at all levels. Were it not for the relentless work of everyday individuals, the Mexican government would have likely closed the case immediately; yet today, Ayotzinapa—albeit unresolved — remains very present in the hearts and minds of Mexicans.
I had a chance to meet parents who are still relentlessly searching for their missing children — a monumental signal that they will not be silenced by government intimidation or inaction. I also met some of my heroes: experts who collaborated across disciplines (from human rights to forensic anthropology and engineering) to elevate the investigation with veracity and integrity. In particular, I had the chance to interview a fire expert employed at the University of Queensland whose pyrotechnics research proved to be a lynchpin in the case. All of this speaks to the magnitude of civil society, which for me holds lessons about the power of waging peace through interdisciplinary means.
I loved those months in Mexico, and I couldn’t be more grateful to MacArthur’s team. They welcomed me with open arms and taught me about the landscape of human rights in Mexico — a beautiful, vibrant, and paradoxical place.
Further, my applied field experience cemented my desire to ultimately transition into human rights philanthropy, and I’m thankful for the exposure and clarity I gained there. Finally, I am immensely grateful to my sponsoring Rotary Club of Grosse Pointe (District 6400) and my host Rotary Club of Bribe Island (District 9600), the leadership and staff at the University of Queensland, and especially my cohort of Peace Fellows from all corners of the world!
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