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EMU alum receives top peace award

A 2009 Eastern Mennonite University graduate has received top honors in the bi-national C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest.

Laura C. Cattell, an environmental science and justice, peace and conflict studies major from Honey Brook, Pa., won first place with her speech, “Structural Violence in the U.S. Education System.” She competed against winners from other Mennonite-related colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

In describing structural violence, she presented a case study of two high schools in the Philadelphia area, one in a wealthy suburb and another in a nearby economically-distressed area in the city. As persons and organizations worked within the system for a more equitable distribution of resources and program funds, the formula used to allocate federal funds was changed to include parameters such as poverty and ESL and consequently provide more resources to communities with little indigenous wealth.

“If we are to do true peacebuilding, we must address structural violence,” Cattell said in her speech. “Service and individual change are needed, but without advocacy it is short-sighted. As Christians, we must continue to serve those around us, but must also embrace the role of advocacy in building a more just world.

“Challenging and engaging coursework at EMU promoted me to speak about the power differentials that maintain and entrench structural violence, I chose to speak specifically about the education system because in theory it gives all kids the same chance at success,” Cattell said.

“I am grateful for such a wonderful opportunity to articulate the problem of structural violence in the education system and to [EMU] professor Gloria Rhodes for her guidance and encouragement on this project,” she added.

In April 2009, Cattell was among 10 recipients of the annual “Cords of Distinction” award. The students were selected for their “significant and verifiable impact” on the university and on student life, for their contributions to developing the institution’s positive image, for substantial contributions to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County area and beyond, for their high academic and social standing and their embodiment of EMU’s shared values of Christian discipleship, community, service and peacebuilding.

Cattell will begin working in October with the Maryland Conservation Corps at the Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary ( This award-winning AmeriCorps program engages young adults in extensive natural resource management and park conservation projects. The program has been managed by the Maryland Park Service since 1984.

She is a member of Frazer Mennonite Church, Malvern, Pa.

EMU has participated in the oratorical competition for the last seven out of eight years, with Nicholas L. (Nick) Stoddard of Harrisonburg winning the grand prize at the bi-national level in 2007 with his speech, “Connect the Dots.”

The contest was established in 1974 by the directors of the C. Henry Smith Trust as a way of honoring the late Mennonite historian who taught at Goshen (Ind.) College and Bluffton (Ohio) University. Smith is well-known for his numerous books on Mennonite history and his particular attention to the peace commitments of the Mennonite tradition.

It is administered annually by Peace and Justice Ministries of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Students from every Mennonite and Brethren in Christ college in North America are eligible to participate. At EMU, the contest is sponsored by the departments of Bible and religion, language and literature and justice, peace and conflict studies.

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