Say you’re Brooke Loughrin. You’re a Presidential Scholar at Boston College. You speak French, Mandarin Chinese, Turkish, Farsi, some Spanish and Hindi, and Wolof, a Senegalese language. You’ve volunteered at the Suffolk County House of Correction and Haley House in Roxbury. You’ve lived with host families in India and Iran and studied Persian and Farsi in Tajikistan. You spent a summer working at an HIV clinic in Senegal and took a language immersion course while living in Istanbul. You’re 20 years old. What do you do for an encore? You join the UN.
Loughrin was recently named the first-ever US Youth Observer at the United Nations, selected from 730 applicants from 236 colleges and universities across the country.
The final call came on Sept. 21. Could Loughrin please get to New York that day? By 11 p.m., she had checked into her assigned hotel and was given a briefing packet and schedule by a staffer at the United Nations Association of the USA, which along with the State Department, launched the Youth Observer program. The UNA is a non-governmental organization that informs the public on the UN’s work.
Loughrin spent the next week at the General Assembly and various committees, panels, and receptions. Since she had started the Model UN Club at her high school in Seattle, she knew something about the proceedings and players.
But the real thing was a thrill. “It was just overwhelming to be at the UN and be surrounded by all that energy and so many people speaking different languages,” said Loughrin, a BC junior. “Some days I’d start at 5 a.m. and not finish blogging until 3 a.m.”
As she speaks of her new gig, Loughrin is drinking tea in the small apartment she and three other girls share in a campus dorm. Her bookshelf is full of titles such as “The Arab Uprising” and “Modern Persian.” She’s majoring in political science and Islamic Civilizations and Societies, and as a Presidential Scholar — based on scholarship, leadership, and community service — gets full tuition as well as summer programs in community service and language immersion.
Loughrin doesn’t mean to name-drop, but she did see a lot of big-wigs in New York including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (“I was so impressed with her”), and she watched from the front row as Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the crowd (“She’s one of my heroes”).
At the UN, a typical day for Loughrin included a “Feed the Future” session with Hillary Clinton and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a session on eradicating polio featuring Bill Gates, and one on promoting religious tolerance for Afghan women, hosted by the Afghan foreign minister.
Kathleen Bailey, Loughrin’s political science professor at BC, was in New York for a conference at the same time as Loughrin, and spent much time with her. “Her schedule was exhausting, but she threw herself into every commitment as though it was the only thing she had to do for the entire day,” said Bailey.
When she got the news of her selection, Loughrin was meeting with BC professor Ali Banuazizi, director of Islamic Civilization and Societies. Banuazizi said her new role is a perfect fit: “Aside from her exceptional intellectual giftedness, Brooke has long had a keen interest in understanding other cultures, a natural ability in the use of language, and a passionate commitment to fostering cross-cultural understanding.”
In early October, Loughrin was back in New York, where she and other Youth Delegates from around the world — there are 40 — worked on issues for the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee of the General Assembly.
“We have been working on ideas and topic areas to better incorporate youth voices and priorities into UN resolutions,” she said from New York. Their main focus was on youth, aging, the disabled, and family development.
On Oct. 19, Loughrin led a panel at the US Mission to the UN on how young people can engage in the fight against poverty, and later in the day, she cohosted a panel on women’s health at the German Mission to the UN.
In December, she’ll be in Washington for nine days visiting the State Department and attending UNA events. And she’ll spend the spring traveling to schools and UNA chapters around the country.
But how will Loughrin juggle her classes and her new duties, which will continue into June?
“It’s a tricky situation because there’s such a strong commitment to being at class at BC,” she said. “But I’m living history at the UN and as long as I continue to come to class and report back, I’m OK.” She’s spoken to her professors and classmates and figures she will miss three or four classes per course for each semester.
Loughrin’s commitment to social justice began when she was a child in Seattle, where her father owns a small accounting firm. At age 12, she read about a local foundation that educates poor girls in Mali, teaches them crafts, and helps them establish their own businesses with micro-loans. She asked if she could help, and is still involved with the program.
Her mother, Kelli, remembers Brooke, in middle school, talking the family into volunteering in Costa Rica, where they helped villagers build a community center, making concrete out of dirt and straw.
“When she saw the poverty there, it brought out the things she really cared about, the kids, the abuse of women,” said Kelli. “We could tell she wanted to do more.”
Her school required community service hours, and her mother says Brooke always exceeded the requirements. “She loved it. She’d rather go with her friends to the soup kitchen or get books for prisoners than go party.”
Loughrin attended the Lakeside School, Bill Gates’s alma mater. Because of programs he funded, Loughrin was able to work at an HIV clinic in Senegal one summer, studied for a semester in India, and lived in Iran, where she visited shrines to the Persian poets Hafiz and Rumi and fell in love with their words.
Loughrin has also read parts of the Shahnameh, or “The Book of Kings,” an epic poem that, at more than 50,000 lines, is three times longer than the Iliad, she notes.
What does she read outside of class? She loved “The Afrika Reich,” by Guy Saville, about “what would have happened if Germany had won World War II and the Nazis had extended their racial genocide to black Africans.”
“For fun” Loughrin just finished “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the the Future of American Power and Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Non-Violence.” She says she loves reading articles submitted for Al-Noor, the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies journal that she edits at BC because “I’ve learned so much about the Middle East from reading them.”
These days, her Youth Observer role is keeping her busy. Her duties include blogging and tweeting about her experience. At the General Assembly, Loughrin was scheduled to introduce a panel on how social media is being used for social good.
“At the last minute, they asked if I would be willing to be on the panel,” she recalled. “It was broadcast live in seven languages, around the world.” After Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of Nigeria, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, spoke about educating youth to take over in the future, Loughrin replied: “I’m going to make the argument that we have taken over.” She then discussed the role of youth in the Arab Spring, and the conciliatory messages on social media between Israeli and Iranian youth, who don’t want war.
Next semester, Loughrin will speak to various chapters of the United Nations Association. “The most important thing is I’m now the first degree of separation between leaders and young people,” she said. “So I always ask leaders their advice on how young people can prepare for a career in international affairs.”
And as for her future? Loughrin hopes to attend graduate school in international affairs and then pursue a career in foreign service for the State Department. She smiles. “I’d love a career in the UN.”