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ODU Graduate Student Chosen to Attend Commission on the Status of Women

While growing up in Newport News, and through her postsecondary education, Savannah Eck has developed a sense of wanderlust.

She's been to China, Australia, all through the South Pacific, but has found that her true love is the continent of Africa.

"It's magical, I love it. I'd rather be there than here, I think," said Eck, who will graduate next May from Old Dominion University's Graduate Program in International Studies. "There's such a spirit there. The personal connections I've made there will stay with me forever."

Eck, who will also earn a certificate in women's studies, has been to the continent three times, and is hoping to join Jennifer Fish, associate professor and chair of ODU's women's studies department, on a trip to Senegal in May.

That sense of worldliness helped Eck become one of 20 students nationwide selected for a prestigious United Nations work session, which will be held in conjunction with the Feb. 25-March 3 meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations headquarters in New York City.

"It's an incredible honor," said Eck, 24. "It's also so valuable to see the policies being discussed on a global level that can end up bettering the life of women in places like Africa."

Eck is doing her master's thesis on lessons that can be learned from the South African advocacy group Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA), an organization she did volunteer work for during a trip to Africa in the summer.

GAPA is a nongovernment, grant-funded organization of 300 strong South African women whose families have been impacted by HIV-AIDS. The grandmothers lead support groups for others affected by the disease, on topics ranging from dealing with grief to AIDS prevention. Eck believes the lessons she's learned from working with GAPA, and speaking to the grandmothers, can be instructive for other organizations working throughout the continent.

At the U.N. meeting, Eck and the other students selected will have temporary delegate status, attend official and nongovernmental organization (NGO) sessions, and contribute to the official documentation of both official and NGO meetings.

In addition to learning about negotiation, advocacy points and networking, Eck must complete several assignments, the most important of which is an advocacy project when she returns to ODU after the commission meetings.

"We teach the women how important citizen engagement is," said Laura Roskos, president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and activist in residence at the Center for Women's Health and Human Rights. "They figure out the ropes, learn how to network with NGOs, meet government officials and participate in turning specific proposals into documents that can be adopted by U.N. bodies. This success empowers them to engage in successful civic campaigns in their home environments."

This type of advocacy is exactly what Eck eventually hopes to do in her career, and is why she researched the study abroad program as soon as she transferred to ODU, halfway through her undergraduate degree. Eck said the opportunities she's received at the university have been amazing.

"They've been so helpful, so open and so supportive," she said. "This whole experience has been life-changing." In addition to her school-led sojourns to Africa, Eck served as an intern in New York City in 2009 with the United Nations Association.

After earning her master's degree, Eck hopes to work in Africa for an NGO for a year, then return to the United States to enroll in law school, with the goal of becoming an international human rights lawyer.

It's an ambitious goal, but Eck believes that her ODU education and study abroad experiences have prepared her well for law school and beyond. She said she is also grateful to Fish, her thesis adviser, who has been there to advise, challenge and encourage her along the way.

"Honestly, I can't say enough about her," Eck said. "She's been absolutely wonderful, the most supportive and understanding and inspirational faculty member you could ever have. She's given me so many opportunities, and I'm so thankful."

This will be the fourth practicum at the U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women. The commission focuses on gender equality and the advancement of women, with the U.N. drawing from representatives of governments to address the problems facing women around the world.

This article was posted on: December 15, 2011

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