"When Classroom Meets Reality": LSJ Geneva Study Abroad

Submitted by Kat Eli on

Written by: Kaitlyn Laibe

Many LSJ courses compare law on the books to law in action. While this approach is often taken from behind a podium (or screen), one group of students, accompanied by Professors Megan McCloskey and Stephen Meyers, had the unique opportunity to bring this approach to life during LSJ’s Geneva program this summer. 

The initial plan for the trip was to explore the intersection of gender, disability, and age by engaging with various United Nations agencies and international legal institutions. However, the plan changed when Professor McCloskey reached out to the General Secretariat of the United Nations Committee for the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  

For the first time, the Secretariat offered undergraduate students a chance to not only observe the Committee while in session, but staff it. The opportunity was not random; having cultivated meaningful relationships through her work with different UN agencies, as well as the International Disability Alliance, Professor McCloskey’s prior projects had earned her respect and trust at the international level. This trust was now extended to her students.  

But what would the work entail? In addition to meeting experts on human rights across a range of UN agencies, students would review and give input on lists of issues (LOIs) for the Pre-Sessional Working Group (PSWG) of the Committee. LOIs are used by the Committee to ask for detailed information from States Parties on their progress regarding obligations in the CRPD, such as the obligation to prevent gender-based violence. The LOIs would be directed to six countries who are States Parties to the CRPD: Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Palau, Tuvalu, Maldives, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. During the program, students had the opportunity to review LOIs and propose amendments and revisions, including questions on issues the drafters may not have initially considered. In some cases, students were invited to present on their work to the PSWG and explain the thinking (and research) behind their proposals.  

Toby Gallant, student team leader for Vietnam, explained how his group produced the questions they would later submit to the committee: “It was incredible. We all did independent research, with access to all UN resources and country reports, along with memorizing Articles 1-32 UN CRPD. We had to make sure we were not only conducting good research but following the guidelines of the committee.” Professor McCloskey noted that students played an important role in their research for the PSWG members; such research required digging through a variety of sources not specific to disability rights, including reports by other UN offices, NGOs, academic resources, and government websites in the six States Parties. Students also had access to confidential reports provided by UN agencies and civil society organizations working in the countries being reviewed.  

After weeks of working tirelessly, each group of students joined the PSWG meetings to discuss and debate their LOI drafts. In a testament to the quality of the students’ work, every team saw the majority of their proposed amendments adopted. Undergraduate students thus not only participated in UN CRPD Committee sessions for the first time, but actively influenced their trajectory. They did not just observe an application of LSJ course themes but experienced it on a personal level. As Professor McCloskey put it, “In human rights classes, we talk about international human rights law and treaty mechanisms, but when you consider events around the world, it can be difficult to see what impact treaties have. We do not always see how human rights are given meaning in practice, and this is exactly what the program was designed to do: to give students the chance to see and learn from experts who are doing the work of implementation in the field.” 

The effects of such a momentous opportunity were not lost on students. Jovina Chi and Toby Gallant expressed how the once in a lifetime opportunity continues to resonate with them back in Seattle, especially in their perceptions of future opportunities. For Jovina, the trip illuminated how much work still needs to be done with disability policy, leading her to pursue legal studies related to the rights of persons with disabilities and older persons. For Toby, the trip inspired him to travel internationally once he graduates, hopefully focusing on policy, much like he did during the study abroad.  

For both the students and the faculty, the trip's impacts will continue to affect their conceptualization of international structures, disability, and applications of course themes. For students who hope to experience the same opportunities, the Geneva Study Abroad is expected to make a comeback every other year. On the off-years, Professor McCloskey hopes to host similar study abroad programs, beginning this Winter. 

In the meantime, there are countless ways for students to channel interest that aligns to the Geneva study abroad. For those interested in an international experience, Professor McCloskey recommends keeping an eye out for openings in the Disability Inclusive Development Initiative, which typically invites applications during winter quarter. Students should also consider looking into volunteer or study abroad opportunities focused on human rights, such as UN Volunteers which mobilize volunteers to work in humanitarian fields within UN agencies. Jovina recommends reaching out to international agencies that you are interested in, especially at the United Nations: “There is a huge demand for student volunteers, especially those who have disability studies knowledge, so reach out!” For those whose focus is more local, Toby recommends getting involved with the Student Disability Commission or The D Center, both of which offer students a meaningful way to engage in Disability Justice on the UW’s campus, as well as provide community. Professors McCloskey and Meyers also encourage students to disability focused courses offered through LSJ, JSIS, and Disability Studies to grapple with these themes – both in and out of the classroom.