Bellisario College doctoral student among first Fellows of new UNESCO program

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State will be represented in a small cohort of Fellows as part of a new UNESCO program that focuses on preventing violent extremism all over the world.

One of the Fellows, Jenna Grzeslo, is a doctoral student in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. She will spend six months at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and work closely with organization leaders in both the social and human science and communications sectors.

The organization’s Fellows Program recruited a team of 10 scholars from a variety of disciplines to collaborate with UNESCO officials. This is the first year of the program. UNESCO Chair for Community, Leadership and Youth Development Mark Brennan said instead of a classic internship, the Fellows are expected to bring new ideas, perspectives and expertise that will advance UNESCO initiatives. In this case, building communities with the goal of combating violent extremism.

“We feel the Fellows will come in with cutting-edge knowledge and new techniques to contribute,” said Brennan, who also is a professor of leadership and community development at Penn State. “UNESCO is excited. All of our key partners are excited. We’re going to have a really strong presence in Paris.”

Grzeslo, a fourth-year doctoral student, was an ideal candidate for the highly selective program due to her dissertation work in Kenya, where she examined mobile technology’s role in local entrepreneurial programs. She recently was named the 2018 Yale M. Braunstein Student Prize Winner by the Pacific Telecommunications Council for her paper on building communities and social capital through community technology centers.

“My research does not address extremism directly, but it does focus on youth and community development, which is at the core of what UNESCO is trying to do,” Grzeslo said. “I have an overview of what the goals are, and I think I will have a lot of control to pitch my own ideas and develop more as I work with stakeholders at the headquarters.”

The organization is specifically targeting youth populations by showcasing the importance of empathy education, bonds within communities and opportunities for young people.

“For a long time, agencies have seen youth as only a vulnerable group. That simply clicking on the wrong website could radicalize them,” said Brennan said. “It is more nuanced. The community aspect is important. There needs to be socio-economic opportunities. If young people are embedded in their communities, their voices can be heard.”

Brennan pointed out that there are 3.7 billion youths (aged 15 to 25 years old) in the world. Young people who find their way to extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are about one-one-hundredth of that total. However, that percentage is an incredibly dangerous small number.

“We shouldn’t see youth as a vulnerable group, but instead as an asset to draw on,” Brennan said. “This idea of youth as peacebuilders and conflict resolution agents … that is where we’re doing a lot of the work.”

For six months, Grzeslo will work at the Paris office on high-level strategies that promote this peace building, as well as conducting research on youth and community development. She also will be connecting with the UNESCO office in Kenya in hopes of contributing new ideas and building on existing projects with officials at the Paris headquarters.

“This program is a tremendous opportunity and I am excited to build relationships with UNESCO,” Grzeslo said. “I think building communities among people who work at UNESCO, universities and tech companies are the types of relationships we should focus on. Those are the interdisciplinary conversations that let us see issues from all sorts of perspectives. I think that will help with problem solving and progress.”

Grzeslo will be joined by fellow Penn State graduate students Maraki Shimelis Kebede, a doctoral student in the College of Education, and Shumaila Fatima, a master of science candidate in international affairs. Students from Georgetown University and Salisbury College also are taking part in the fellowship program.

Jenna Grzeslo will spend six months in Paris working at the UNESCO headquarters. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 02, 2021