Admissions Blog: My day at the United Nations

In September, I attended a United Nations panel discussion on youth innovation. It was an experience I will never forget.

Emma Thom UN
Emma Thom at the United Nations

I approached the array of flags amidst a sea of reporters, feeling apprehensive and inadequate. Meighan Stone, the moderator for the event and new member of Sweet Briar’s board of directors, led me through a number of security checkpoints, one resembling the airport I’d just come out of. (Before serving as the executive chairwoman of Pencils of Promise, Meighan worked on the Malala Fund.)

I sat in a room with leaders from around the world, including guest speaker and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus, as well as representatives from Canada, France and Antigua. They spoke of generation Y, adolescents and young adults ranging from 18-24, and their growing importance in the world.

I listened to Dr. Yunus remind his audience of highly esteemed businessmen and women that generation Y was not made up of the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. He suggested we were already in possession of the resources needed to be innovative and to create the change we wished to see in the world.

Following his enlightened speech, Matt Keller, Global Learning XPRIZE senior director, explained this nonprofit organization’s position as “an innovation engine and facilitator of exponential change.” His competitive team had been working to create a tablet-based software capable of bringing children from being completely illiterate to literate in 15 months, without the aid of a teacher.

I had expected to sit in awe of the world’s leading analysts and innovators, but instead I had questions and concerns. In a world already barreling toward impersonal relationships, what would happen to the educators, the tradition, the pen and paper? And, most importantly, what would happen to the children with learning disabilities: dyslexia, Down syndrome, autism?

Venkatesh Chari, president and CTO of Orbit Research, eased some of my anxieties. He brought to the panel his latest — what I would call — technological breakthrough, the Orbit Reader 20, revolutionary refreshable braille display. This 6-by-4-inch device, complete with more moving parts than a motor vehicle, enables the blind to text, take notes, browse the internet and read. A round of applause bellowed from the crowded room. This was innovation, this was change, this was compassion and concern for the disabled.

Alongside this panel of men was a group of the world’s leading women, urging and encouraging the confidence and independence of young women across the globe. Meredith Walker, founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, was among the women who sought to lead my generation of women in a largely male-dominated business sphere. We’d spent our two-hour-and-thirty-minute session in a flash with no time left for a Q&A as staff members began to clear the room. I shook hands with the men and women I’d only ever heard of before that day and left with a feeling of gratitude and inspiration.

It was truly an honor to attend this panel, and a whirlwind experience I will never forget.

Emma’s experience sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it doesn’t have to be. At Sweet Briar, our network of alumnae and friends and a well-connected career services office provide ample opportunities for hands-on learning, including internships and study abroad. And, starting next fall, you can earn up to $2,000 to fund those invaluable experiences. There truly are no limits to what you can do as a Sweet Briar student. Learn more about Sweet Briar here! 


Emma ThomEmma Thom ’18 is an English and creative writing major from Lynchburg, Va. She is involved in theater at Sweet Briar and will perform in the spring production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

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