UNT’s Castleberry Peace Institute advances research, cross-cultural understanding in Colombia

UNT’s Castleberry Peace Institute advances research, cross-cultural understanding in Colombia

UNT Diving Eagle
July 9, 2024
Photo of UNT professor Jim Meernik in Colombia
Jim Meernik, Regents Professor of political science and director of the Castleberry Peace Institute


This spring, students and faculty from the Castleberry Peace Institute at the University of North Texas traveled to Colombia as part of ongoing research. Their work focuses on peace-building, reconciliation and the reintegration of former combatants into society. Primarily based in the city of Medellín, these initiatives aim to deepen the understanding of peace-building efforts and provide students with unique learning opportunities.

Established in 2010, the Castleberry Peace Institute is housed in UNT’s Department of Political Science as part of its Peace Studies minor program. Its primary goals are to support teaching, learning and research regarding conflict prevention and peace-building on an international scale.

The Colombia project began in 2016 when Jim Meernik, Regents Professor of political science and director of the Castleberry Peace Institute, learned of a Colombian political asylee living in North Texas. Meernik and his peace studies colleagues established connections with organizations in Colombia and began identifying opportunities for student learning and research projects. Now, the institute sponsors an annual study abroad trip to Colombia for involved students and faculty.

“The goal is to introduce students to the people and processes involved in peace-building,” says Meernik, who also is the winner of the 2024 UNT Foundation Eminent Faculty Award, the university’s highest faculty honor.

This year’s trip included a visit to Comuna Trece, or “Community 13,” a neighborhood that was once the site of violent skirmishes between the Colombian government and rebel groups. Thanks to civilian peace efforts, the area is now an internationally-renowned hotspot for music and art.

The Castleberry Peace Institute works with non-governmental organizations on peace-building initiatives as well. Through an organization called Aulas de Paz, or “Peace Classrooms,” students can meet with former combatants from rebel and paramilitary groups. Participants also work with Madres de la Candelaria, or “Mothers of the Candelaria,” a group whose mission is to locate missing and disappeared people.

“These experiences are transformational for our students,” Meernik says. “They can see firsthand the things we’re learning about.”

Student research projects involve surveying former combatants to learn about their experiences and promote successful reintegration into society. Another research project spearheaded by Meernik and University Distinguished Teaching Professor in political science Jacqueline DeMeritt — which received a $93,000 grant from the National Science Foundation — aims to interview imprisoned gang leaders on solutions that may lead to demobilization. In addition, student participants offer general assistance to local organizations, whether it’s creating intake forms for missing persons or restoring damaged photographs of missing loved ones.

Peace-building is about trust. Without trust, how can you create peace?
Mya Ocasio

Students who work on the Colombia project develop skills that are valuable both abroad and domestically. Many project alumni go on to work with disenfranchised populations in the U.S. or with diplomatic organizations that promote peace-building abroad.

“You can train people on certain skills, but mastering cross-cultural communication and collaboration requires hands-on experience,” Meernik says. “The knowledge and insights our students gain through the Colombia project can be applied anywhere they go.”

Tucker Fayes, a senior psychology major with minors in criminal justice and addiction studies, joined the Colombia project in 2023. Much of their work on the project involves enhancing photographs for families of missing and disappeared people. Fayes said learning about the Colombian conflict has informed their understanding of generational violence and its impact on individuals.

“One career I’m considering is working as a therapist for juvenile offenders,” Fayes says. “The Colombia project is giving me insight into the factors and influences that cause people to become offenders.”

Mya Ocasio, a senior majoring in Latino/a studies with minors in Spanish and conflict and human security, also joined the project in 2023. Ocasio worked as an interpreter with Madres de la Candelaria and Colombian reconciliation committees, translating information from Spanish to English. While she always planned to study law, the project inspired her to broaden her focus to include international issues.

“Dr. Meernik sparked in me a love for these initiatives,” Ocasio says. “I hope to continue working with these communities when I’m in law school.”

One of Ocasio’s favorite parts of the Colombia project has been developing relationships with the people she serves. While the project has prepared Ocasio for her career, it’s also taught her the importance of creating genuine connections.

Peace-building is about trust,” she says. “Without trust, how can you create peace?”