The concepts of peace and conflict always have fascinated Dover’s Lauren Mirzakhalili. Beginning in September, the Dover High School alum will get to examine both while at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Mirzakhalili, 20, will study the results of what have become known as “The Troubles,” a period from the late 1960s to 1998 marked by violence and bloody sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants in that British province.
A psychology major at Swarthmore College, Mirzakhalili will go to Belfast thanks to Las Dos Chicas, a nonprofit scholarship organization and cultural resource foundation based in Drexel Hill, Pa.
Mirzakhalili received the “Pack Your Bags” scholarship in May. While abroad, she’ll study subjects such as conflict and conflict resolution and their social and political impact, as well as how the process was applied to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
It’s a combination of experience and academic learning, she said.
“We’ll be getting our hands into it at a community organization, and we’ll be in there every day,” she said. “It’s something I think I’ll really like. I really learn well when I’m doing things, not just sitting and listening.”
Active learning always seems to have been Mirzakhalili’s forte.
Born in Wilmington, her family moved to Dover when she was 7 years old. A self-described high-spirited child, she had trouble keeping her attention on her work until her second-grade teacher at North Dover Elementary School, Susan Plucenik, directed her to the school’s program for gifted students.
“That was a big impact on my life,” Mirzakhalili recalled. “It really prepared me well for advanced placement courses in high school and for college.
“I still run into Mrs. Plucenik when I’m in Dover, and she’s just amazing.”
One of her favorite memories while growing up in Dover is skating on roller blades on the streets of the Hunter’s Pointe subdivision. She was famous, or perhaps infamous, for certain fashion accessories she favored.
“I was really into it,” she said. “I was that extravagant girl on skates who wore funny-colored socks. I was in that phase where you want to break out and do your own thing.”
‘She’s just phenomenal’
Las Dos Chicas is the brainchild of teachers Erica Mier and Jill Bednar, who teach the Spanish language in Pennsylvania schools. Both women felt that to understand the people whose languages were being studied, students needed to immerse themselves in those cultures.
Page 2 of 2 - Video and other presentations commonly used in schools just weren’t enough, Mier said.
“Those things were pretty bad and they were boring,” she said. “I know that if I was bored, then a 13-year-old would be bored.”
The pair founded Las Dos Chicas as a way to create their own, more interesting videos on foreign cultures and, using profits from the endeavor as well as donations from corporate sponsors, they also created the Pack Your Bags scholarships. This is the third year they’ve awarded the $2,500 prize.
“Lauren is one of the best candidates we’ve ever had,” Mier said. “She’s just phenomenal.”
Mirzakhalili made an exception this year to her usual summer of spending time in Dover with her family to work at a camp for special needs children in New York state. Following graduation from Swarthmore, she plans to become a clinical psychologist.
She thinks what she learns in Northern Ireland will further that goal.
“I’m into activism and peace activism, but on a smaller scale,” she said. “The concepts of dealing with peace and conflict on a large scale can be applied to one-on-one situations as well, and that’s what I want to do.”