Tackling the World's Hardest Problems
Hunched over her laptop in a small café somewhere on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, you’ll find Woodlawn’s own Sydney Bowman ’14 sipping a latté working on post-grad plans and her senior thesis. Bowman, an Occidental College senior, is taking a semester away from the Los Angeles campus to complete an internship at the United Nations in NYC. The UN internship program (the only one of its kind in the country) was one of the major factors that attracted her to Occidental - only 17 students per year are granted the opportunity to participate. “A couple of other things that really attracted me to Oxy,” says Sydney “were its national reputation for political activism and its location — LA is at the forefront of immigration issues and climate change. We’re also famous because President Obama was a student here!”
This fall, Bowman is serving as an attaché at the UK mission to the UN. “I wanted to be in a mission because it’s a unique place to be,” she says. “The UK is in the P5 (permanent 5 members of the Security Council), and so it holds a great responsibility to prevent world conflict and preserve international peace.” Last week, Bowman participated in the 72nd session of the General Assembly — a time where world and civil society leaders gather at the headquarters. “At one point I looked around and thought to myself, “is this even real?” — I mean, we were standing among world leaders discussing important and relevant things that affect us all — stuff like how to harness the power of the internet in a positive way, how to combat modern slavery, and the fight for inclusion of women in peace and security. It’s a very humbling experience. The problems that come to the UN are the hardest, most complex issues. Otherwise, they’d already have been solved.”
Sydney’s quick to point out that it’s not all about escorting world leaders to conferences and having the honor of sitting in on Security Council meetings. “The UK Mission is huge and definitely has an “all hands on deck” vibe so we do whatever we’re told— printing copies, shredding papers, or making tea for the diplomats. I don’t even know how to make tea,” she laughs, “which can be problematic in the UK mission.”
Bowman says her interest in world affairs began at Woodlawn. “From the beginning we were always taught to have a global mindset, how to be global citizens,” she says. “Even our emphasis on service, though it was local, taught me to consider how I could protect human rights, to speak up for those without a voice. In our history classes we were not always taught the dominant narrative.” Bowman explains, “We were sometimes taught history from the perspective of the oppressed versus the oppressors. That challenged us to step into the shoes of the person struggling rather than holding onto our own biased view.”
Sydney also says Woodlawn taught her to listen to others rather than talk over them. “I am a self-described low conflict kind of person. Diplomacy is all about being a good listener and thinking critically about how to solve a problem.“ She credits her international travel opportunities and how her teachers were “constantly pushing us to have a wider perspective of the world outside of Davidson, N.C.” as factors that led her down her current path.
When not shuffling between the UNHQ and the UK mission, what does a 21 year-old do in NYC? Sydney laughs and says there’s a joke among the interns — we leave for work when it’s dark and we return from work when it’s dark. “We don’t have a lot of spare time,” she admits. “But when I do, I like to walk through Central Park and reflect on the week and the privileged position I am in. It’s a good time to let it all sink in. And, it’s also fun to people watch!”
After a stint in Costa Rica to do field work on an advocacy campaign for the sustainable pineapple industry (a real problem in Costa Rica), Bowman will return to Occidental in January for her last semester. She’ll graduate with a double major in Diplomacy and World Affairs and Spanish. After that? She pauses a good long while and then pokes fun at herself: “You know me — I never make a decision until the very last second, and when all my choices are clearly laid out in front of me!”
Favorite Woodlawn Memory: Definitely all the laughs and inside running jokes Paulina (Campbell '12) and I shared on the XC trails as the two-woman varsity team. We'd laugh so hard it hurt. I will never forget that.
Best thing Woodlawn taught you: Don’t ever underestimate the value of learning how to write a good DBQ (Document Based Question). The “Don” was a master at teaching us this skill and I have to tell you: you will use it again in your life. Trust me.
Favorite Book: Too many to name. I’m currently reading What Happened, I am Malala, and I’m a regular with the magazine The Economist.
Favorite Movie: Legally Blonde (Hey, Women’s Empowerment!)
Advice to Woodlawn students: It sounds so overused, but lifelong learning is key! No one is an expert on everything. Ask questions, learn about what you don’t know. This is very much the culture at the UN. Everyone is always learning. Stay humble.