Experiential Learning in Conflict Management: SAIS Students’ Discerning Journey in El Salvador

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This article is an outside retrospective on the Conflict Management capstone trip to El Salvador in March 2023. 

By: Ángel Chica Sánchez

Edited By: Joseph Schneider

The Conflict Management Field Trip to El Salvador, led by Professor Dr. Siniša Vuković, stands as a remarkable example of how immersive experiences can enhance academic research and prepare students for real-world scenarios. At the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, experiential learning is a fundamental aspect of the educational approach, providing students with practical tools to foster their understanding of complex global challenges.

The trip to El Salvador was the 20th iteration of the Conflict Management Field Trip: a prestigious course in SAIS that has previously studied conflict dynamics in many other regions, including Haiti, Kosovo, Mindanao, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Casamance, Sri Lanka, Korea, Tunisia, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

At the end of the course, the Trip Report Presentation titled “El Salvador, Exiting the Cycle of Gang-Related Violence” took place in the Kenney Auditorium at the University. Students could proudly present their findings and conclusions in order to provide a well-informed contribution to the debate, offering a viewpoint to be shared with those observing El Salvador and contexts of similar complexity.

“A fascinating study and a really fun group to work with–I loved being a part of this trip!”

Maggie Smith, Student

Nevertheless, the research started at the beginning of the semester. 16 SAIS-selected students embarked on an intensive journey to explore the intricacies of El Salvador. This endeavor involved meticulous research, in-depth meetings with experts, and a comprehensive engagement with the research topic through a combination of classroom learning, individual work, and practical experiences, procuring to understand in depth the historical, political, economic, and social dynamics that have shaped El Salvador’s conflict landscape.

The highlight of this experiential learning program was the immersive field trip to El Salvador during the Spring Break (March 20–24, 2023). The students had the invaluable opportunity to engage directly with key actors and high-level officials. This unique access enabled them to gain firsthand insights into the challenges and efforts undertaken to promote peace and safety in the region. Throughout their field trip, the students met with the Vice President of El Salvador, H.E. Felix Ulloa, the Minister of Justice and Public Safety, H.E. Gustavo Villatoro, government officials in key Ministries, the embassies of the USA and the European Union, UN representatives from the UNDP, the World Bank and the Peace and Security advisor, development agencies (USAID, Spanish Aid), UCA University, key international and local NGOs, and independent experts and community leaders. These interactions provided a comprehensive perspective on the multifaceted dimensions of conflict, including peacemaking (or the lack thereof), and peacebuilding exemplified by issues such as good governance, long-term sustainable peace, and transitional justice. The students were able to witness the realities on the ground, listen to personal stories, and explore the diverse approaches employed to address gang-related violence in El Salvador.

“The challenges of peacebuilding, statebuilding, and nation building in post-agreement El Salvador remain an endless source of inspiration and guidance for the scholarly and policy community alike. Yet, the ongoing situation in El Salvador significantly defies the assumptions and conceptual underpinnings of our field

Dr. Siniša Vuković, Senior Lecturer of Conflict Management and Global Policy

With the conclusion of the semester, the students’ research proved to be successful, showcasing their deep understanding of the complexities of conflict management in El Salvador. Recognizing the value of their findings, the students are preparing to publish their research, aiming to contribute to academic and policy discussions in the region. Their work stands as evidence of the significance of experiential learning and the potential for academic research to make a real-world impact. 

Although I have completed my capstone, I plan to continue refining my paper into a publishable product. I look forward to sharing my research on the state of exception in El Salvador and how it reinforces and is reinforced by the government’s securitization of gangs

Cameron Vega, Student


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