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Virginia Tech Peace Center gets a hand from EMU

Twenty-one months ago, Professor Jerzy Nowak was writing a grant at Virginia Tech when student Seung-Hui Cho began a shooting rampage. When the shootings were over, Nowak’s wife Jocelyne Couture-Nowak was among the 32 who died.

In the chaotic and grief-filled aftermath, one of the three Nowak daughters, 23-year-old Francine, told a reporter that the best way of memorializing her mother and the other victims would be establishing a peace center at Virginia Tech.

In May 2008, Virginia Tech announced the establishment of a Center of Peace Studies and Violence Prevention (, with Nowak as its head. Promoting peace is a new life mission for Nowak, who previously headed Virginia Tech’s horticulture department.

Nowak led a group of 11 from Virginia Tech to Eastern Mennonite University Thursday, Jan. 22, to meet with its president, academic leaders in conflict transformation and students studying peacebuilding.

“I knew almost nothing about Eastern Mennonite before I started exploring how to set up our peace studies program,” said Nowak. “But amongst numerous information packages and offers of collaboration I have received, I found its peace program to be fascinating and one of the most highly regarded.”

EMU’s is also the closest to Virginia Tech – just 2 1/2 hours by car on I-81. The Virginia Tech group observed an undergraduate class in justice, peace and conflict studies, met with professors and staff at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), and learned how CJP’s Practice and Training Institute serves as a bridge between the theories and skills taught in the classroom and their application around the world.

Nowak had a particular interest in the global nature of EMU’s work – CJP has hosted students and practitioners from dozens of countries over the last 12 months – because he himself was born in Poland and has worked on agricultural matters in West Germany, Nigeria and Canada.

“We are pleased to collaborate with Virginia Tech in the growing movement to nurture seeds of peace within ourselves and in the world at large,” said EMU President Loren Swartzendruber. “The more of us in the peace business, the better.”

Nowak’s wife, 49-year-old Jocelyne, was teaching an intermediate French class in room 211 at Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, 2007, when she heard the gunfire of Seung-Hui Cho. She led her students to barricade the door with a desk and ushered them away from the door. The barricade did not stop Cho. Couture-Nowak and 11 of the 22 registered in her class perished. Couture-Nowak died in front of the door and next to the teacher’s desk.

She has been memorialized with the Jocelyne Couture-Nowak Terrace Garden at Virginia Tech, as well as with a scholarship in her name awarded annually to French majors. Students at Virginia Tech have also organized a new foreign language program named “Teach for Madame” in honor of Couture-Nowak, wherein members teach French to elementary school students.

And last, but not least, her husband now heads a peace center in the building where she died.


– Story by Bonnie Price Lofton

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