The Astounding Life and Times of Caecilia Van Peski

Caecilia van Peski has always been interested in the field of Peace and Conflict. Her father was a minister, which is where she developed an interest in social issues from a young age. She was introduced to an International Exchange Organization for youth, UK-based CISV International, which opened her world.

Van Peski has a master’s degree in educational and cultural psychology, from Tilburg University, the Netherlands. She says that “I have always had a great fondness for the education setting.” She came to Juniata after participating in the Convention of Christian Approaches to Defense and Disarmament (CCADD). The convention deals with discussions of nuclear disarmament. At one of these conventions, she met Juniata’s Physics Professor Jim Borgardt, who told her she should be a speaker at Juniata College. She was working for the United Nations at the time, but her contract was not renewed and Juniata offered her a faculty position for the Spring 2019 semester.

She will be leaving Juniata after Commencement Day for her next post in Geneva for the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF-ISSAT) where she will be the head of professional development and training. She has enjoyed Juniata but feels that “after half a year, it’s time to move, because it then becomes your comfort environment…travelling and working in a job that is not your environment are the things that you will really remember.”

Van Peski has worked with organizations like the United Nations, European Commission, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). She has gone on peace monitoring missions where the goal was to stabilize the society. She went to Afghanistan for three years, the country of Georgia for two and a half years, and Eastern Ukraine for three years. She said those deployments were memorable because she was always “living on the edge” and “your senses are more open from being out of your own environment. It makes you function in an alert manner.”

Eastern Ukraine was an especially memorable mission for her. She explained that “for the whole world it was a disaster, but for Dutch citizens, the disaster was the MH17.” The MH17 was a Malaysian airline with citizens aboard when it crashed. Van Peski said that “I will remember those days and hours forever.” Spaces from the personal lives of those who died were shown on television, including school desks of the children who had died. “I will always remember those empty seats that were left behind and not connected to this war,” she said.

Van Peski has faced danger while on peacekeeping missions. At one point she was taken hostage. She shares the details of her hostage situation with U.N. diplomats and with soldiers who are going to go on military missions. She has been trained as a “Conduct After Captivity” instructor, a program which trains people in dealing with the first minutes and subsequent hours, weeks or sometimes even months after being taken captive.

Van Peski explains that she feels that women survive differently under hostage situations. “As women,” she explains, “We are good at surviving harsh conditions…we have durability and communication skills.” She also mentioned that it was difficult for the men because some of them felt like they needed to be strong.

Another challenge that Van Peski faced was when, in 2010 during her mission in Georgia, she was involved in a car crash and broke her neck. It took her a year and a half to recover in a military rehabilitation center. She says people call her the “Iron Lady” at home due to the iron in her neck.

Despite these experiences, she never considered quitting or finding a different career. She explained “it’s not really a choice. I could imagine there are some people who work in this international arena that plan their careers, such as a career diplomat. But in most cases, such as my case, you try this and you try that. My own professional career has been like a train. Luckily there are different trains you can get on. But sometimes the train wasn’t leading me in the right direction. I try to go with the motion and keep a sense with what my talents are and what I am enjoying and see where it leads me.” She has experienced sexism due to her working environment being a “man’s world.” She describes it as “changing,” saying “We have the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 which promotes women peace keepers, and more and more women are entering the field.” She also mentioned that men were more likely to be hired, but there is an effort to get rid of the “old boy’s club,” continuing: “It’s necessary to show that women can bring something else valuable for this sector.” She did explain that men and women should be working together and it should never be an “us vs them” situation.

She said that the sexism she has experienced has been in terms of hiring and not sexual harassment. “I have never experienced anything in the context of the Me Too Movement. Maybe I am fortunate in that sense. More in the sense of if there is an application for a job, the men would not think of hiring you. It just doesn’t pop up in their mind. They automatically, without thinking about doing any harm, hire one of the men they already know. It is too exotic for them to think of women doing the job. We need more female role models.”

Van Peski said what opened her world was having good people around her with which she “could reflect and share ideas with.” She did mention that traveling alone and being your own person is an important step in career development in PACS. “You will be more challenged in using your own skills and dealing with difficult situations”. She said that in order to work in PACS, you need to be a “curious person.” She said “you need to want know why certain things happen in a certain way. You need a good inner judgment for what is good and bad and a feeling for justice. You learn to have insight into institutionalized practices that lead to inequality.”

Some common misconceptions that she feels people have about PACS is not understanding its variety. This includes social work, working for the community, and learning to understand democracy to build a “more peaceful society”. There is also work in the “active war theater.” Roles in the PACS field include being an international diplomat or being a doctor when treating a communal disease like Ebola. The economy is also extremely important in understanding peace and conflict. She noted that some citizens feel resentful that they are not making as much as other citizens are and feel that they do not have a livable wage. She also mentioned that there are few careers in PACS that are stable, and one job is almost never going to last until retirement.

She also mentioned that she feels she has had an easier time as a diplomat due to being Dutch. She says the Dutch have a reputation of being fun and friendly, so there is no hostility towards the Dutch as there is towards America for things like sieging Afghanistan or Donald Trump. For Caecilia van Peski, the biggest success in her career was in 2010 when the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs appointed her as a special representative to the United Nations and she spoke for seven minutes in front of the General Assembly. She said she felt that “I was going in the right direction.”

Smaller experiences she had while on deployment were also valuable to her. She said “just sitting with an older citizen and having him tell you the story of his life and how he lost his children, grandchildren. This sticks with you forever. The faces and the stories of the people I met along the way will remain with me for the rest of my life.” She mentioned how her views have changed during her career, saying “I feel like I am becoming more realistic. I am also sad about that. In the early 2000’s, the concept of global citizenship was very popular. You saw a younger generation that could travel a lot. There was a rapid development of what we then called third world countries.” She said unfortunately the future for these concepts looks unlikely to succeed: “I think there is limits in this thinking in terms of global citizenship. We all need belonging and identity roots. Without that we become more self-absorbed and egocentric.”

With conflicts around the world, “it’s devastating to see people suffer from crises we are not able to solve. I am more realistic now than I was when I was younger. I speak less of making peace and more of trying to forge stability. I am more interested in military defense because I see we need this. I have become less of a tree hugger.” She also said that “moving as a happy hippie from place to place” as she does might seem like an ideal life, but is useless if no interaction and genuine connection is made with the people in her new environments.