Danielle Hanes, '16, attends a briefing at the UN last fall on the topic of the newly-released Sustainable Development Goals. Hanes is part of the UN Youth Representative program, which allows students to represent various NGOs at the UN. (Courtesy of Danielle Hanes)

Youth-Rep program offers students a voice on the world stage


During her first semester at Lehigh, Sarah Berman, ’16, had the opportunity to shake hands with the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, at the International Day of Peace event at the United Nations.

Berman said this was the moment that hooked her into getting involved with Lehigh’s UN programs.

In 2006, Lehigh started the first-ever United Nations NGO Youth Representative Program. This program allows students to serve as representatives on behalf of non-governmental organizations from all over the world. Students represent their respective NGOs and assume the responsibility of making sure their organization has a voice in critical discussions being held at the United Nations.

The program was created by Bill Hunter, Lehigh’s director of international outreach. He saw the opportunity to fill a need back in 2004 during weekly NGO meetings. Hunter said the demographic of those meetings skewed from 55 to 60 years old and above. He said this inspired the program that would allow the future generation of leaders to have a voice in these critical conversations.

The UN’s Department of Public Information has since adopted the Youth Rep Program, allowing students from all over the country to serve as representatives. There are approximately 400 young people around the world who represents NGOs at the UN.

“We have 30 Lehigh students who four days a week are in classes sitting next to you and other students, participating in sports and other activities, and one day a week they sit at the United Nations,” Hunter said.

Berman is a youth representative for a small NGO based in Ghana called the Bethel Youth Aid Foundation, which is oriented around pubic health. She said her experience has been a little different from others’ because her NGO has allowed her more leeway. Berman said the director of the NGO is open, which has allowed her the opportunity to attend a variety of conferences and speeches.

This experience as a youth rep even led Berman to visit Ghana to see the work that her NGO does on the ground.

Each student applies directly to the NGO of his or her choice. Hunter said when students are selected, they sign an agreement with the NGO saying they will learn as much as they can about the organization so they are able to speak confidently and professionally when they arrive at the United Nations.

“I’ve learned about the UN and other international bodies in classes, but the main difference is that when you walk in the doors of the UN you have the chance to bump into people from other countries,” Berman said.

There are nine NGO youth representative positions open. Students are only able to apply to one NGO because it is their job to convince the organization president that his or her interests directly align with the organization’s vision and mission.

“The youth voice is very important to the United Nations and this is one of the most direct avenues for young people to have that voice on the global stage,” Hunter said.

Abby McBride, ’16, has represented the Unitarian Universalist United Nations office for three years. Her experience as a youth rep has given her the opportunity to frequent the UN to not only hear leaders from around the world speak but also to have her voice heard.

“Even though you might be the youngest person in the room, your voice is still very valuable,” McBride said.

In addition to the youth representative program, Lehigh also has a presence at the United Nations through weekly visits for conferences, briefings or workshops. Hunter said more than 1,000 Lehigh faculty, staff and students have engaged at the UN just this year.

“Most students at universities around the world have to learn about the United Nations through textbooks,” Hunter said. “Lehigh learns about it by walking in the door.”

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