The Benjamin V. Cohen Peace Grant, designed to allocate funds to Ball State faculty and graduate students engaged in research contributing to a more peaceful world, recently supported two graduate students. Despite the difference in their project focuses, a common theme unites them: the resolution of issues for the betterment of the world.

Aashna Banerjee

Aashna Banerjee, a Doctoral Candidate in Counseling Psychology, secured the Cohen grant to aid her research in Sexual Violence Prevention.

Collaborating with Dr. Lawrence H. Gerstein, the cross-cultural and international psychology expert, and Dr. Mellisa Holtzman, the sexual violence prevention expert, Banerjee’s research stems from years of prior experience in various projects centered around identifying violence.

Portrait of Aashna Banerjee with round glasses, a pink velvet turtleneck featuring a left-sided bow detail. Dark brown hair parted to the right, a silver nose piercing on her left nostril, smiling against a black backdrop

Aashna Banerjee

“It made sense to do that because, in India, there wasn’t a lot of scholarship at that time to focus on identifying gender-based violence specifically. So when thinking about my dissertation came along, I was like, ‘you know, I’ve been doing so much work on violence. I want to do some work on peace now,’” Banerjee said.

Banerjee also recognized the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly among college-aged people, motivating her to explore avenues for reducing such violence.

“Sexual violence is something that’s very important to me as a cause because I’m a survivor of sexual violence myself. At that point, I had worked so much as a therapist that I knew sexual violence is something that’s so prevalent and so many people, especially in the college age range, don’t understand what the spectrum of violence looks like. So, I wanted to do something about peace and sexual violence. So, reducing sexual violence, how do I do that? And that’s kind of when I came across this whole world of sexual violence prevention literature and programs,” Banerjee said.

Engaging in a community-level intervention, Banerjee reached out to various organizations in late 2021 and early 2022, aiming to understand the community’s needs for effective program tailoring.

Banerjee then went through the process of creating a program and reached out to experts in India to get feedback.

“I don’t want to do just another program, which is, like, made by a different country and implemented in a global south country. That happens way too often. And I don’t want to keep perpetrating that,” Banerjee said.

Banerjee applied for the Cohen Grant in early January 2023 to fund her research and received the news that she had been chosen on February 20th.

“Okay, I’m on this bus. And I’m getting really bad network. So, I am finally able to get to the network at 12:30 in the afternoon. And I see that I got an email at 10 o’clock in the morning about the Cohen Grant, and I can feel my body just tense up,” Banerjee said. “Then I read the email saying that we got it, and I swear, instead of any kind of relaxation, I just went into turbo mode.”

The Cohen Grant will allow Banerjee to cover the project’s costs, such as compensating experts who aided in reviewing material, facilitators, and process observers, purchasing self-defense equipment and other supplies, and compensating program participants who complete surveys.

“I’m so fortunate to have received the Cohen grant, like earlier this year, because without that, none of this would be happening. And I’m just so grateful that it panned out the way that it did,” Banerjee said.

Tina Ahmadi

 Tina Ahmadi, a doctoral student in educational psychology, received the grant to aid in her research, which focuses on restorative justice practices in Central Indiana schools as a model for improving school disciplinary practices worldwide.

She is collaborating with Dr. Serena Salloum (has expertise in class climate, research methods, and school leadership), Dr. Jill Bradley-Levine (has expertise in curriculum development and qualitative methods), Dr. Jocelyn Bolin (the statistics expert), and leaders within partner schools (experts in many realms –curriculum, education, and more) to move the project forward.

“We’re studying restorative practices, a concept that involves building resilient classrooms and school communities that respond to conflict in a way that repairs the harm and respects everyone involved,” Ahmadi said.

 The project aims to assess how the co-developed professional development series impacts teachers’ use of restorative practices and its connection to positive classroom outcomes. Additionally, it focuses on understanding and addressing the specific challenges teachers and leaders face in implementing restorative practices.

Two women posing for a photo. On the left, Tina Ahmadi wears a navy blue jacket with black leather sleeves over a knee-length green dress, with her brown hair pulled into a bun. On the right, Aashna Banerjee wears a blue kurti and black dress pants, accessorized with round glasses, dangly silver earrings, and a silver pendant necklace, with her dark brown hair pulled back.

Tina Ahmadi (left) and Aashna Banerjee (right) pose for a photo.

“One thing that really ties in nicely to restorative practices, is some schools have trouble with disproportionality, with discipline and referrals. It is not uncommon to see punishment that differs based upon race and gender. So, this is one of those reasons why a project like Tina’s is just so incredibly powerful and because it is very responsive to a particular need that schools are facing,,” Dr. Salloum said.

“.. In addition to co-developing PD with a team of school leaders, there are a lot of other things that we’re assessing, like what barriers teachers and leaders encounter when implementing restorative practices. Most people when they hear about [restorative justice], they would say, ‘this sounds great. Let’s do this. Our school is restorative.’ But then, when it comes to actually doing it, challenges pop up. Pinpointing those challenges and collectively identifying ways to overcome those challenges is a big part of our project,” Ahmadi said.

Ahmadi and Salloum both note the incredible work that partner schools and educators are doing.

“I hope I emphasized this enough, but I am really grateful to everyone who has made this project possible and collaborated. This includes my amazing mentors and co-PIs, but I also want to emphasize the really incredible work that leaders and educators at the schools we’re working with are doing. They’re incredibly passionate about this work and working so hard to do what’s best for the students. I admire them so much, and without their passion and collaboration, this project would not be possible,” Ahmadi said.

In addition to collaborating with schools to address the project’s goals and needs, Ahmadi is concurrently navigating the multifaceted dimensions of the project. This includes carefully considering technological aspects, thoughtful curriculum development, and effective data management.

“There are a lot of moving parts- we have to think about curriculum development, technology, and more. A team of experts really is necessary, and I’m grateful for our amazing team.”

Ahmadi adopts a comprehensive approach in conjunction with her close collaboration with districts to grasp their specific needs. This involves meticulously considering district dynamics, where she takes the time to understand ongoing initiatives.

“I think Tina was really careful to go in and listen to what was happening in the schools, understand their current initiatives, and then try to figure out how her interests could sort of be married to what was already in existence.  I don’t think that’s always the way that research projects are conducted. I think sometimes people will have an idea, and they’ll just put it on top of whatever is already preexisting,” Dr. Serena Salloum said.

Ahmadi learned she was a Cohen Grant recipient in the spring of 2023.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, and this type of project would not be possible without funds. It’s really important to compensate the educators who are giving their time and energy. We’re really grateful to all the people who have supported this, to the grant administrators, and to the Cohen Peace Fund for making this opportunity possible,” Ahmadi said.

Ahamdi is grateful for the support she’s received throughout the project from faculty and staff.

“I’m so amazed by BSU TC faculty and staff. I’ve always felt this way, but even more so since this project began. Whenever I have a question or reach out to someone, they’re incredibly responsive and generous with their time and support. Both the faculty members who are Co-PIs on this project (without whom this project wouldn’t be possible, whose expertise is moving things forward in the best way possible), as well as faculty and staff within TC who have provided feedback and all kinds of logistical support generously,” Ahmadi said.

“I’m afraid if I start naming them, I’m going to forget someone, but the TC community and the K-12 schools we’re collaborating with have built strong and supportive communities that make this type of work possible, and these two communities are the MVPs for this project.”