When the 1:30-a.m University Announcements email rolls into Lehigh students’ inboxes, some students use it as a sign to hit the hay or continue scrolling on TikTok. But, for some students, it is used to find timely events or even rare Lehigh-specific work opportunities.
Lehigh students have taken on representing nongovernmental organizations from around the world at the United Nations through the Lehigh University/United Nations Partnership.
This year, the program has six new members.
Elena Reiss, assistant director of the Office of Fellowship Advising and U.N. Programs (within the Office of International Affairs), said the yearly representative selection process ensures candidates are willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones.
Students apply to specific NGOs with a two-minute video explaining their interest. Once chosen, youth representatives are expected to have regular communication with the leaders of their organizations, assist with research and attend relevant events at the United Nations.
“I try to build the program in a way where they meet regularly as a cohort and we work on specific skills so I bring in guest speakers from other departments or from the U.N. that focus on developing specific skills, that the U.N. perhaps needs,” Reiss said.
She said most of the cohort will begin working on proposals for panel presentations that will be given in spring 2024 at the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations.
Beyond this presentation, Reiss said the youth representatives must believe in what they’re saying and convince the audience to be interested in their work.
“It’s amazing to see how within even the first semester or the first couple of semesters, all of a sudden they become people that go to the U.N. to present on behalf of their NGOs,” Reiss said.
Along with a growth in representatives this year, the program has also grown to include two new NGOs.
The Widow Development Organization (WiDO) and the Confederacy of NGOs of Rural India (CNRI) are the newest two of the 10 different NGOs represented by Lehigh students. CNRI became a partner in March 2023, while WiDO joined in May 2023.
These organizations focus on a variety of issues, from global health to gender equity and justice to environmental sustainability.
Many of the new youth representatives have chosen to become involved in the new NGOs.
The students featured below are the newest members of the U.N. Youth Representative Program.
Centre for Women Studies and Intervention
Based in Nigeria, this organization works to protect and empowers women by spreading awareness of gender-based violence and oppression. According to the center, they conduct research, lobby legislators and train women at the grassroots level to fight against marginalization.
Chioma Chigozie-Okwum, ‘27G, discovered her NGO through the University Announcement emails and was impressed with how students were helping move various NGOs’ agendas forward. She was drawn to the open position for the Centre for Women Studies and Intervention so she could help push its agenda forward at the U.N.
“It was actually fascinating to me that this NGO is doing so much for women,” Chigozie-Okwum said. “They have programs and initiatives that attempt to tackle issues that are so deep in our patriarchal culture — issues like female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence and child marriage.”
Julia Wilczynski, ‘25, learned about the partnership through her close friends who previously served as Youth Representatives for The Centre for Women Studies and Intervention. She said the center includes door-to-door promotion of their cause regarding equal representation throughout society.
“A lot of the work done for my NGO can only be done in Nigeria, so having representation in America for them is very important and it places a big responsibility on me and my fellow Youth Reps,” Wilczynski said. “I just want to make sure that I can make as much of an impact as I can with this position through any skills I can offer.”
Lorraine Rwasoka, ‘26, said she began in April 2023 after learning about the role in a weekly College of Health email. She said the U.N. Partnership combines some of her interests in engineering and pre-medical studies. Rwasoka said she hopes to have the CEOs of the Centre for Women Studies and Intervention visit this school year.
“It’s basically about women’s emancipation and educating women about their rights, about everything that they can do about domestic violence, when they should vote, about how to get assistance or help when they are experiencing abuse, and all those things,” Rwasoka said.
Widow Development Organization (WiDo)
Based in Nigeria, the organization wrote that WiDo provides counseling, educational programming and income-generating activities for people whose rights have been violated. The organization works to spread awareness of the challenges widows face with the goal of bringing about change in the social status of widows.
Sophia Barro, ‘25, said the U.N. Youth Representative Program enticed her as an impactful way to get involved in international diplomacy while working with like-minded students. She said neither her political science nor women, gender, and sexuality studies classes addressed the issues of this specific marginalized group.
“This NGO is very unique to me, personally, because I feel like when we talk about women’s issues, we talk about women who assumingly are married and just basic societal inequalities, not realizing that widows experience various intersectional issues such as lack of health care once their spouse is gone and a lack of support,” Barro said.
Sophia Barro is also a reporter for The Brown and White. While we do not typically interview staff members, the editorial board has deemed her inclusion in this article necessary and unbiased as its purpose is to highlight the six newest members to the U.N. Youth Representative Program.
Adeyemi Odudimu, ‘26G, studies chemistry in a Ph.D. program. She said she became interested in the U.N. Youth Representative Program because many people in developed countries like the U.S. are unaware of issues occurring in underdeveloped countries. Last month, she was able to attend a round-table discussion at the German Mission at the U.N. with other Lehigh students where they had the opportunity to ask questions about the plights facing young widows as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you come to people that are studying science, until the time we are so immersed in our research, we don’t even know what is happening in another part of the world,” Odudimu said. “I didn’t base my life only on my science, (and) I also am taking part in global issues.”
Confederation of NGOs of Rural India (CNRI)
According to the organization, CNRI was established by the Indian government to serve as the main coordinating body of nongovernmental organizations in rural India with the objective of facilitating socio-economic transformation. CNRI primarily serves disadvantaged sections of the country by providing support and services for its 7,000 member NGOs and self-help groups. Through its research, the organization wrote that it operates as a think-tank and consultative body for India and the rest of the world.
Nessa Pello, ‘25, was first introduced to the program through the College of Arts and Sciences newsletter two years ago. She began her work as a Youth Representative in March and continued working with CNRI over the summer. In July, she attended a political forum at the U.N. for the progress toward sustainable development goals. Pello is currently working on a research paper about the farmer-centric value chain, which uses technology to optimize the cultivation of the land to feed increasing populations and support farmers — and the Environmental, Social and Governance framework for sustainability, which focuses on the impact companies have on the world around them.
“I think (the program) just perfectly combined all the interests that I have and also things that I’ve been learning in my classes into this extracurricular,” Pello said. “(It is) a program that actually makes a difference.”