Many people aspire to impact the world for good. I am no different: I have grand, idealistic desires to help people all over the world. As such, I was thrilled to attend the annual conference on the status of women at the United Nations. Just saying the “United Nations” filled me with excitement. I hoped it would provide amazing, life-changing experiences that would act as a catalyst to my career in the international field. I went expecting to be inspired. Suprisngly, my short time at the UN inspired me differently than expected: I left as an idealist that better understands reality. I certainly learned and grew in ways that were unanticipated but have surely impacted me for good.
When I first arrived, everything was a whirlwind. I was caught up in the excitement of leaving small town Provo and being thrust into the international community of the UN. I loved walking around the building and being able to hear the different languages, see the different cultures, and feel the excitement. Once the initial charm of being at the UN wore off, I was still pleased to attend different conferences and listen to what the delegates had to say.
I attended multiple conferences hosted by countries from every continent. I learned of Europe’s attempts to improve sexual education – they want every woman to be in control of her body, especially concerning reproduction. I learned about Scandinavia’s efforts to include men in the fight for gender equality. I heard women from south and central America discuss the challenges of being a human rights advocate. All of these conferences taught me more about the struggles that women face all over the world.
The most influential conference that I attended, however, was a small meeting concerning the peace and security of African nations. I stumbled upon it by mistake and was one of the only white Americans there—and I was definitely the youngest. I listened to the women discuss the challenges of finding peace in their countries. I heard of their struggles with child brides, rape, violence during war time, and other issues that largely affect women. Most women merely reported on the status of her country. But one was different. She stood up and began to vehemently criticize not only the lack of progress in her country, but also the ignorance (and often arrogance) of the United Nations and developed countries. She frankly told the representatives of the European nations that they needed to be on the ground and understand the grass-roots of the country before they continue to make any kind of foreign policy. Her words were very clearly anti-aid, and she didn’t hide her feelings towards foreign power providing inefficient aid. As she spoke, everyone erupted in applause, and support for her statements permeated the room. People liked what they heard.
Hearing this woman speak, coupled with the strong support, really impacted me. This and other conferences of a similar feeling made me wonder where I stand in the international community. Am I just a little white girl from small Utah who can’t really understand what’s happening in turmoil-ridden countries? Is my desire to do good works and “change the world” anything more than a desire to do perpetual voluntourism? Are my skills and interests more suited to helping people of my own country, in my own community? Is my presence in international development even wanted? Would I be doing more harm than good?
All of these questions seemed to hang on me the rest of the conference. I continued to interact with officials, set up interview times, collect their contact information, yet those questions were always on the back of my mind. I loved being there at the United Nations and involved with the organization in some small way, but I couldn’t help feeling disillusioned by the international community. I felt like my idealism was being crushed by the reality of government and non-government inefficiencies.
It wasn’t until a week later as I was pondering on my time at the UN that I was really able to fully appreciate my experiences at the United Nations. I am now better able to answer those questions that were pressing down on me. Reflecting on all the people that I interacted with, the conferences that I attended, and my own personal studies helped me realize that despite being a white American from a small town in Utah, I can still make a positive change on the world. More than ever, I felt a strong need to continue on my path to research more effective ways to provide international aid and stimulate development.
At the UN, I saw first hand the intense desire for change and improvement, but I also felt the dissatisfaction due to failures of well-intentioned projects and organizations. After a week of disillusionment, this dissatisfaction inspired me rather than deter me. It inspired to contribute research that empirically shows how to improve the status of women and men around the world; I can contribute by providing sound research that leads to effective policy. I will be forever grateful for my week at the UN. It has proven to be the catalyst and necessary motivator for me to continue to work internationally.