MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Projects for Peace will formally transition to being administered by Middlebury College this winter, further establishing its status as a key experiential learning opportunity for Middlebury students and those at many other institutions. The program was created and directed by the Davis United World College Scholars Program. When the transition is complete, Projects for Peace will be led by Program Director Betsy Vegso, who joined Middlebury in August.
A newly created office, which will be part of Middlebury’s Center for Community Engagement, will oversee administrative operations of the grant-making program. Projects for Peace provides $10,000 grants to undergraduates across the country for self-designed peace initiatives. It will operate much as it has in the past, now leveraging the opportunities of Middlebury’s global network.
The program was founded by philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis, who used the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2007 to fund 100 grants of $10,000 each in support of student work that would bring new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world. “There will always be conflict,” said Davis, who died in 2013 at age 106, “but I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace instead of preparing for war.”
Middlebury President Laurie Patton commended Davis’s vision, saying, “We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the late Kathryn Davis for envisioning the possibilities of peace and the role that creative, determined students could play in achieving it.”
“Our world needs peacemakers and changemakers more than ever before,” Patton said. “This new structure will enable us to build on the excellent work of Phil Geier, who brought Mrs. Davis’s vision to life through his expert design and leadership of the program. We now have the opportunity to integrate Projects for Peace thoroughly into Middlebury’s global ecosystem and we are fortunate that, while Phil is handing off Projects for Peace, he will continue to lead the Davis United World College Scholars Program. We are delighted that Middlebury can take a leadership role in both programs.”
Harnessing Student Creativity
From the start, Projects for Peace attracted the kind of deep conceptualizing and creativity that Kathryn Davis had imagined from ambitious students. Among the 100 projects funded that first year was a personal narrative project that aimed to capture and share stories of children across Uganda. Four Middlebury sophomores, Aylie Baker, Leah Bevis, Vijay Chowdhari, and Chris O’Connell, had been contemplating ways to counter harms brought about by the historic North-South ethnic conflicts in Uganda, which had been compounded by the emergence of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The Middlebury team wanted to help change common narratives about certain marginalized tribes through a series of audio stories told by children. They enlisted the help of radio stations—a prime source of news for Ugandans at the time—who agreed to add the content to their programming.
“On the national level we seek to bridge divides by airing these stories around the country, thus cultivating an awareness and empathy within Uganda which crosses traditional barriers of communication,” wrote the students in their project description. “Contacts with Ugandan radio stations assure us that we can air our finished stories. This will assuage existing prejudices and promote empathy and in turn peace within Uganda.”
Over the years, student projects have covered a lot of terrain and, in some cases, even provided a leadership blueprint for bigger projects down the road. In 2008, a first-year Middlebury student from Afghanistan submitted a proposal that would deliver life-saving clean water to war-torn and drought-stricken areas surrounding Kabul. She knew that a lack of clean drinking water was a significant cause of death in Afghanistan, especially among children. Her project resulted in nine new wells, delivering fresh water to thousands of people.
The student who spearheaded the well-digging project, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, has become an internationally recognized leader and advocate for women’s education in Afghanistan. In 2008, while still a Middlebury student and the year she began her Project for Peace, she founded the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), an Afghan-led private boarding school for girls, the first and only of its kind in Afghanistan. Just 13 years after its founding in a rented house with four students, SOLA in 2021 enrolled more than 100 students with more than 30 staff members.
1,800 Grants and Counting
Now in its 14th year, Projects for Peace has awarded 1,800 grants. Projects have been completed in 139 countries by students from more than 100 partner institutions. The program has established a considerable alumni network of current and former students who have completed projects. A hallmark of Projects for Peace is its flexibility. Proposals may be submitted by any U.S. or international student enrolled at a partner institution. Students may be any age or any major, may implement the project alone or with others, and the project may take place anywhere in the world.
Middlebury will continue to work with its 90-plus partner institutions and the campus liaisons at each school to engage students with Projects for Peace.
Betsy Vegso, the program’s new director, arrives with more than 15 years experience leading domestic and international programs that prioritized the development of intercultural competence and emphasized community-driven approaches. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan, Betsy served as a director of programming and training for the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan, Romania, and Indonesia. More recently she was a consultant with the federal agency’s Office of Global Operations. Recent assignments included establishing new Peace Corps programs in Vietnam, Montenegro, and Sri Lanka. Previous to moving overseas with the Peace Corps, Betsy was a mediator and facilitator with a nonprofit conflict resolution center in San Mateo, California.
“The sheer range of issues being addressed and approaches being tried by grantees tells us something about how young people are defining peace and creating change in our world,” Betsy said. “Peace building is not just about good will or good works. Projects for Peace grantees are thinking critically and long-term about what their own role could or should be for a given issue. They are also reaching out to others—whether peers, community partners, or faculty advisors—to be sure their project is well-grounded and meaningful.”
Middlebury’s campus liaison for Projects for Peace—the main point of contact for students—will continue to be Heather Neuwirth Lovejoy ’08, program director for the College’s Innovation Hub.
“At this exciting point of transition, I remain deeply appreciative of Kathryn’s vision and of the ongoing Davis family philanthropy, which makes Projects for Peace, in its many manifestations—past, present, and future—possible,” said Phil Geier, executive director of the Davis United World College Scholars Program. “I am confident that Middlebury will enhance the possibilities of Projects for Peace and inspire a growing cohort of young peacemakers to realize their greatest potential, sparked by their own projects.”
Middlebury College has been a partner institution since the program’s founding in 2007, and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey has been a partner since 2013. Between the College and Institute, 47 students have completed 27 Projects for Peace.
Kathryn Wasserman Davis, Video, KW Davis 1, In Her Own Words, 2016