Students in the Peace and Conflict Studies program scored big in the recent Northeast Regional Mediation Tournament, going up against teams from top law schools including New York University and the University of California Berkeley.
Campus teams won third and fourth place in the contest, the first time they’d ever competed.
Nneka Agha, a first-year master’s student from Lagos, Nigeria, who was on the team that won third place overall, says the mediation situations were very realistic and intense. In one round, she had to role-play a divorced man trying to spend more time with his child.
“I was trying to prove to my ex-wife that I could create a bonding experience with our child,” she says. “It got emotional. I cried.”
Jenna Kapp, a junior from Lunenberg, took second place as an individual mediator. She says the tournament, which started with a daylong intensive training by professional mediators, was a fantastic introduction to the field.
“We learned about the value of mediation over litigation,” Kapp says. “We also learned about the concept of restorative justice through mediation, which is more affordable and accessible in developing countries.”
Mediation is a growing trend in American courts as well, because so many people cannot afford lawyers in civil cases such as divorce, child custody, small claims and landlord-tenant disputes. Locally, Massachusetts and New Hampshire courts now offer mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution in nearly all civil suits.
Many law schools now teach mediation, arbitration and negotiation skills because they can lead to better outcomes at less expense than traditional adversarial trials.
The coach for the UMass Lowell teams, Seth Izen ’12, is a certified mediator who has worked in district courts and community mediation centers. He teaches a graduate course in mediation through the Division of Online and Continuing Education.
Izen first heard about mediation tournaments last summer and recruited students in Peace and Conflict Studies to form teams, coaching them in tandem with Frank Talty, assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. When they found out that the past host, Northeastern University, wasn’t holding the tournament this fall, the college stepped in to host it here and now plans to make it an annual event.
“A tournament lends legitimacy and credibility to the alternative dispute resolution skills the students are learning. Those skills can turn a vicious legal fight into a constructive negotiation,” Izen says. “It was a tremendous experience for our students to compete against teams from top law schools as well as undergraduate teams from Boston University and Holy Cross.”
UMass Lowell fielded four teams of three students. Under tournament rules, each student on a team plays a different role — client, lawyer-advocate or mediator — and they switch roles in each round. Client-advocate pairs from two different teams enter mediation on a fictional case, with two co-mediators from two other teams.
The judges — professional mediators, attorneys, judges and university faculty and staff — give awards for effective advocates and client-advocate pairs, in addition to school teams and individual mediators.
Graduate students Ahmed Al-Makura and Ibukun Sanni, from Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria, took fourth place as a client-advocate team. Nicole Anderson, a senior political science major and peace and conflict studies minor from Malden, says she was really impressed because they didn’t get angry or back down when their opponents threatened to walk out on the mediation.
“Some of the law school teams were being very aggressive,” she says. “Ahmed and Ibukun took a way more relaxed and genuine approach. When the other team escalated, they decided to stay calm and express their points.”
Colton Williams, a senior political science major and peace and conflict studies minor from Salem, N.H., who was on Kapp’s and Anderson’s team, says he learned skills that can be applied in any dispute, not just lawsuits and international conflicts.
“So many common problems can be resolved with mediation and clear, consistent, level-headed communication, like club mediation and personal relationship mediation,” he says.