Higher education can produce life-changing moments, often in ways we can’t predict.
A recent trip to the United Nations Headquarters in New York proved to be one of those moments for Western Law student Rachel Makkar.
“Visiting the UN opened my eyes to a different area of law and that’s something I will always hold on to,” said Makkar.
She was one of 21 students from Western Law course Capstone in International Law taught by professor Valerie Oosterveld who had the chance to attend the UN’s 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March.
“We discuss international law in the classroom, but at the UN students experience real-world legal discussions up close among diplomats and advocates from all over the world,” said Oosterveld.
The commission began in 1947 shortly after the founding of the UN. This year the theme was innovation, technological change and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.
“As someone who moved from India to Canada at an early age, I witnessed the benefits that accrue from a social and political system which encourages gender equality. I’m always curious about how different countries have different legal systems and that’s why I took the class,” said Makkar.
A career in international law is now a real possibility following the trip.
“After seeing the impact you can make with a law degree and the ability to contribute towards systemic change, I want to be a part of that future,” said Makkar.
While in New York, the group of students witnessed representatives from around the world discuss issues related to gender equality. Several students had the opportunity to meet Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the UN.
Faye Hankinson, who is attending Western on exchange from Leeds University in the United Kingdom, shared in the inspiration from the trip.
“A lot of us said we went there as observers but left aiming to be one of the speakers one day,” she said.
Hankinson said going to the UN was a bucket list item and an incredible opportunity. She said she was especially touched by a presentation from an exiled journalist from Russia who fled to the United States.
The journalist was forced to leave her family and loved ones due to safety concerns following of her reporting on alleged crimes committed by law enforcement during protests following the invasion of Ukraine.
“It was emotional because she says she receives death threats every day and that it’s quite a difficult life to lead, but she still wanted to spread awareness. Her determination to see an end to online harassment for female journalists was inspiring,” said Hankinson, who said the experience broadened her understanding of issues facing women and girls around the world.
“I’ve not heard of many universities being given this opportunity. It’s not something I ever thought I would be able to do,” said Hankinson.
Students also witnessed the procedural side of the UN and how it operates, an eye-opening experience for Western Law student Alina Gdaniec.
She attended the summit on her own, as she was not able to go during the dates the group attended. One of the opportunities she jumped at was a chance to sit in the General Assembly room while representatives from several countries debated on the current situation in Myanmar.
Violence and civil unrest have become widespread in Myanmar since the military seized power from the government in February 2021.
“I didn’t really know a lot about what was happening there prior to the trip. I got to listen to the representatives from Canada, Japan, France, Costa Rica, Singapore, Myanmar, Bangladesh and many more. It was interesting to see what position each one was taking on the situation,” said Gdaniec.
One of the surprising aspects of the discussions was how business was conducted and how representatives arrived at conclusions. She noted it was not as dramatic as most people might expect.
“I think in your head you make up a really fancy process but in reality it’s just a lot of small and simple group negotiations that come together and produce conclusions,” said Gdaniec.
All the students’ collective experiences were invaluable to their education and life paths and it’s an experience Oosterveld hopes she can continue to provide.
“I feel that it is important to bring my students to the UN so they can see international law in action,” she said.