While most students were in class Nov. 2, almost 100 Cornellians were exploring international territory in New York City. A group of 56 undergraduate and 30 graduate students, whose native countries range from Ghana to Singapore, spent the day at the United Nations with 40 Columbia University peers.
The purpose of the trip, now in its fourth year, was to "increase awareness of diversity among students, as well as to stimulate intellectual discussion of issues of international importance in a less formal way," says N'Dri Assie-Lumumba, Cornell professor of Africana studies, who founded and organizes the annual trip.
It is vital, she says, to give students a sense of global awareness that often cannot be captured in a lecture hall. "To see the flags outside of the U.N., from the many countries of the world joined in one organization, is itself a transforming educational experience," says Assie-Lumumba, who specializes in comparative and international education and currently serves on the UNESCO Scientific Committee on Knowledge Production but has worked and conducted research for many branches of the U.N.
In guided tours, the group learned about the U.N.'s history and its recent successes and the challenges. Questions about Security Council reform, achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals and concerns about Sudan dominated the tour discussions.
Walking through the General Assembly room and past such places as the Security Council room, where delegates were holding a meeting, "makes you realize it's actually functional, that there are things going on here that will truly affect the world," said Abhinav Mansingka '11, a native of Bombay, India.
In a panel discussion of five U.N. experts who addressed student-selected topics, Mohammed Salamat of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs spoke about the global consequences of climate change and the U.N.'s response, such as the problematic Kyoto Protocol. David del Conte, from the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, stressed that only 10 percent of the U.N.'s emergency humanitarian response to natural disasters and conflict zones is donor funded, and that often the U.N. cannot meet people's needs. Sylvie Cohen, from the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women, discussed the need for gender neutrality at the policy level.
A theme throughout the discussions was the viability of the U.N. to enforce its positions. Students pointed out the U.N. monitors, but does not enforce against, violations of the Kyoto Protocol, gender neutrality and even such humanitarian disasters as Darfur. They also pointed out that the United States and Australia have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol; there has been no action taken against Saudia Arabia, where women are continually repressed; and Sudan is still a member state of the United Nations.
In response, Sylvie Cohen, deputy director of the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said that the U.N. "works at a normative level," i.e., working to prescribe standards.
"I never knew that much about the U.N., but now I am beginning to understand the principles behind it," said Eimy Socas '10, who is majoring in mathematics and economics.
"Every time coming to the U.N. is different -- it's not as much of a mystery," said Seunghye Chai '08, a health and society major who was visiting for the second time. "Somehow I feel more connected to the world each time."
And that is exactly what Assie-Lumumba was hoping for.
The trip was sponsored by the International Students and Scholars Office, Ujamaa Residential College; the Gothics, Mews and Hans Bethe House (residential communities on West Campus); Residential/Campus Life Programs; and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.
Chandni Navalkha '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.