Abby McBride ’17 has always been interested in international issues, but growing up in Michigan, she didn’t have a lot of exposure to them. She chose to come to Lehigh because of its location on the East Coast and its distinctive relationship with one of the world’s most influential organizations—the United Nations.
This academic year marked the 10th anniversary of Lehigh’s partnership with the UN. In 2004, Lehigh became just the sixth university in the world to gain official recognition as a non-governmental organization by the UN Department of Public Information. Thanks to this relationship, students and faculty can attend UN programs and host international dignitaries and events on campus.
“Having UN NGO status distinguishes Lehigh from its peers,” says Bill Hunter, director of international outreach and manager of the program.
“We have taken a very proactive and formal initiative to engage directly with global decision makers. Lehigh students now have open door access to one of the world’s most important bodies, a place where decisions regarding their future are made. Via our NGO status, our students get a seat at the table.”
In 2006, Lehigh created the world’s first NGO Youth Representative Program, which allows students to work with NGOs from around the world, attending briefings and conferences on their behalf. Since its inception, the model has been adopted by the UN worldwide.
McBride, who’s majoring in international relations, became a Youth Representative during her first year. She represents the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, focusing on human rights and LGBT issues. She lobbies other NGOs, writes blog posts and helps plan conferences.
“It’s been incredible,” McBride says. “I’ve had the most amazing opportunities. I went to a Security Council event and heard Tony Blair. I’ve met Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. It’s incredible to hear people like that speak and to participate in that dialogue.”
She says her experience at the UN has helped her grow professionally. She’s been thrown together with civil servants and world leaders and had to learn how to hold her own.
“It taught me to be less shy, to reach out to people,” she says. “It’s taught me that my youth isn’t a barrier, and just because I’m young, I shouldn’t voice my opinion.”
Lehigh makes the UN accessible to all students, helping faculty members integrate it into their curricula, running buses to New York City and hosting dignitaries on campus several times a semester.
"In my courses on globalization, we talk a lot about the emergence of the UN, and its structure and functions," said Kelly Austin, assistant professor of sociology. "I encourage my students to attend events at the UN and give extra credit to students who participate in UN events and share their insights with the class during discussion. This semester, five of my students got to meet the ambassador of Sierra Leone, and my students shared what they learned about how debt is impacting the health service sector there. I use the UN as a resource because it exposes students to important ideas and people, and helps them to apply the things they are learning about globalization and global inequality."
Jonathan Witt ’15 took advantage of one of the bus trips. Like McBride, he’s interested in international policy, but as a chemical engineering major, he doesn’t have time to take classes in that field. The bus trip was an easy way to get some international exposure. On the way back, Hunter recruited him to work with an NGO that needed someone with chemical engineering experience. He spent his junior and senior years as the Youth Representative for the World Corrosion Organization.
“I like that it’s a huge difference from my daily activities,” Witt says. “I’m not there solving equations or simulating reactors. I’m hearing presentations from people I’d never interact with otherwise and meeting people from different countries. It makes me a well-rounded person.”
Witt believes the UN partnership has something to offer all Lehigh students, especially those in the engineering college who might not see it as a natural fit.
He worked with Lehigh’s Engineers Without Borders chapter to build a water system for a town in Honduras. But because the group couldn’t communicate effectively with the townspeople and didn’t understand cultural issues like their suspicion about chlorinated water, the well failed and the town ran out of water.
Visiting the UN exposes Lehigh students to people from different backgrounds and helps them get comfortable talking with anyone.
“If you want to be an engineer, you need to understand how people use your product,” he says. “I get people skills at the UN. And we need more engineers bridging the gap with decision-makers, connecting them with accurate data and facts so they can make better decisions.”
Hunter says that the UN-related activities, whether on campus or at the UN, are open to all students, staff and faculty, and they engage more than 1,000 participants each year. But he’d like to see that number increase.
“From a curricular perspective, there is much room for growth,” he explains. “Students in all four colleges can currently take courses related to the UN. However, the UN’s purview is vast, and many other existing courses can benefit from UN exposure, and new courses can be developed using the UN as an experiential classroom. We’re also working on building relationships at UN offices and agencies around the globe, in hopes that faculty will take students abroad to other UN sites for on the ground research and study.”
Over the past 10 years, many Lehigh students have had transformative experiences at the UN. McBride says one highlight of her time as Youth Representative was covering the Department of Public Information’s NGO conference, which focused on the future development around the world.
“I was one of just 11 people to do that. We got to voice what we wanted to see on the development agenda. That never would have happened if I wasn’t at Lehigh. Lehigh makes the UN accessible to people. Take advantage of it. It’s going to change your life if you do.”
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lehigh University-United Nations Partnership, Savannah Boylan ’15, Kendall Clement ’15, and Madina Kurmasheva ’15 produced a documentary about the program’s history and its future. Watch it here.
By Emily Goff