Three years ago, when 15 UC Irvine students from Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Druze and nonreligious backgrounds formed an unlikely alliance to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they became — to paraphrase Gandhi — the change they wished to see in the world.

Some founders of the Olive Tree Initiative changed majors. Some changed career paths. All say their involvement changed their perspective on the conflict.

"This group of ethnically, religiously, academically and economically diverse students resolved among themselves to become a new voice on campus, a respectful voice that could speak to the realities of life in Israel and the Palestinian territories," says Kirsten Quanbeck, assistant executive vice chancellor and director of UCI's Office of Equal Opportunity & Diversity.

Because of their peace efforts, the Olive Tree Initiative founders received the 2009 Living Our Values Student Team Award. Given annually by Chancellor Michael Drake, the Living Our Values Awards honor staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI's values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun. Nominations for the 2010 Living Our Values Awards are being accepted through May 7.

"The OTI experience is deeply ingrained in my character and values, influencing many of the decisions I make," says Dana Ballout '08, an original member now working for the United Nations Development Programme in Beirut.

"I learned that behind all the political slogans and overused labels — like pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, Zionist, terrorist, freedom fighter, martyr and so on — there is no black and white. There are only shades of gray filled with people, all equal to each of us and one another, with histories, emotions and daily lives to lead. I learned that I can only try to understand them, but not to judge. I'm not in their shoes, and they are not in mine."

In fall 2008, OTI students visited the Middle East with faculty advisers Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor for student affairs, and Paula Garb, co-director of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. They met politicians, religious authorities, academics, community leaders and activists from both sides of the conflict. More stereotypes were broken, and more barriers fell.

"Going to Israel and Palestine helped me realize there's so much to be learned by talking to people, versus just relying on what the media and politicians say," says Katharine Keith '08. "I discovered that most people do want peace, but it's easy for the peace process to be hijacked by those who benefit from the conflict."

"This revelation motivated me to pursue a field that focuses on people-to-people diplomacy," says Keith, who enrolled in the master's in public diplomacy program at the University of Southern California after earning a bachelor's in international studies at UCI.

OTI students have held numerous campus and community forums to share their experiences, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps. Current members will make the group's third visit to the Middle East this fall, and an OTI community group will soon embark on a trip of its own. Other UC campuses, including Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, also have started chapters.

"Olive Tree has opened up a new platform for dialogue," says Daniel Wehrenfennig, a founding member who in December received a doctorate in political science. He directs UCI's new undergraduate certificate program in conflict analysis & resolution.

"As long as there's conflict in the Middle East, there will be conflict on campus. Despite recent events, students are still talking. There's a lot more communication going on," he says. "For such a young organization, the Olive Tree Initiative has done quite a bit to encourage discussion on these issues."

OTI's founders hope the change they initiated at UCI — the change they made in themselves — will continue to spread.

"When we went to the Middle East," Wehrenfennig says, "people were fascinated by our diversity. They wanted to share their stories with us. We hope to replicate the Olive Tree vision in that region so more people can share their narratives and start working on a solution. It'd be a waste of time if we did this here and it didn't have an effect over there."

2009 Living Our Values Student Team Award recipients: Sameera Ali, Dana Ballout, Omar Bustami, Moran Cohen, Katharine Keith, Evonne Liew, Paul Maguire, Ali Malik, Sally Mouakkad, Amanda Naoufal, Alexandre Schmitt, Shahrooz Shahandeh, Sepi Termechi, Daniel Wehrenfennig and Isaac Yerushalmi

— Kathryn Bold, University Communications

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