On their last day overseas, participants in the Richmond Faculty Seminar Abroad faced perhaps the most tension-filled and unforgettable experience of the seminar: crossing the Mitrovica Bridge in Kosovo.

On foot. 

U.N. police and Swiss K-4 trucks surrounded the area to prevent citizens living on either bank of the Ibar River from attacking citizens on the opposite bank. A pile of rubble in the center of the bridge blocked any attempts at car traffic. Hateful, anti-U.S. and anti-E.U. graffiti smeared surfaces on the Serbian side of the river, according to seminar participant Dr. Shital Thekdi, assistant professor of management. 

The faculty members spent 18 days abroad studying peace and conflict management in Israel, Jordan, and Serbia. 

They spoke with local experts about some of the worst outcomes of conflict—war, hunger, genocide—and the complexities of arriving at and maintaining peace. Now, they walked toward the river and a boundary of a peace so tenuous, it was maintained by force.

The river divides the city of Mitrovica. On its northern bank live Serbs, many of whom were relocated there after the 1999 Kosovo War. Kosovo Albanians, the city’s majority population, dwell on its southern side. To cross the river in peace, visitors must not demonstrate any political affiliation in their actions or dress. No flags, no logos, and no signs.

Seminar participant Dr. Dejun “Tony” Kong, said the walk across the river was unforgettable. An assistant professor of leadership studies and management, Kong teaches negotiation and conflict management at Richmond.

“We often talk about divided cities in the United States or in other parts of the world because of racial segregation or other kinds of cultural segregation,” Kong said. “But, at Mitrovica, you can see it. It is so visible.”

The Office of International Education coordinated the interdisciplinary seminar and selected the destinations on the basis of their current importance for the United States, in the world, and to the University’s curricular needs. Seminar participants—UR faculty from four of the University’s five schools—began preparing for the seminar in February and completed multiple sessions with campus experts who shared information about the histories and cultures of the four countries. They left campus in May on a bus bound for Washington-Dulles Airport to put this knowledge into real-world context.

“The seminar provides UR faculty the opportunity to experience first-hand the sounds, sights, smells, and emotions involved in meeting and interacting with people from other cultures and countries,” Dr. Joe Hoff said. Hoff is interim dean of international education and led the seminar. “Viewing the conflicts from different disciplinary perspectives enhances participants’ ability to understand the complexities of the situations they find abroad.”

Their itinerary featured various opportunities to meet and share information with NGO representatives, faculty, and researchers from host country institutions including the University of Haifa, a UR exchange partner for study abroad.

Participant Dr. Jon Dattelbaum, associate professor of Chemistry, applied to the seminar because of his interest in the Arab/Israeli conflict and to establish contacts for teaching collaboration. He hopes to build relationships with Haifa faculty to explore topics such as Israel’s biotech boom and to incorporate that information into classes, especially The Business of Science, a Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course he is co-teaching in 2013-14.

The faculty seminar allowed Thekdi to experience study abroad in at least a condensed form, which she expects to enrich her ability to advise sophomores applying to study abroad

“We visited universities and we sat in the classrooms and we were, essentially, the international students,” she said. “As educators, that helps us look at experiences through a new pair of lenses.”

Mitrovica is a city known to have existed as far back as the Middle Ages. Kong said the local people he spoke with in Kosovo could not clearly recall the reason for their mentality about the conflict. At Richmond, he plans to develop what he saw and learned into a case study of human in-group and out-group mentality for students in his conflict classes.

On one side of the Mitrovica Bridge, the faculty had already experienced some of the Albanian perspective of the story. According to Hoff, only by crossing to the other side of the bridge and into the city beyond would they be in the presence of the culture, history, and people who could tell the Serbian view of the story.

“The impact of these relationships is actually taking a physical form by a blocked bridge on a river,” Thekdi said. “It was very telling of everything we saw during the trip. Looking at this bridge put all the sentiments and academic teachings into perspective. That to me stood out as the magic moment of the seminar.”

Photo: The Mitrovica Bridge spans toward the Serbian section of the city.