The University of Georgia
McGowan, Laurie

UGA's Amazing Students

Laurie K. McGowan

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April 29, 2012

A passion for advocacy, travel and learning about other cultures has given Laurie McGowan a sense of purpose for her life following graduation from UGA in May.  And the Columbus native credits all the different experiences she had at UGA for giving her this direction.

Expected graduation:

May 2012

Degree objective:

B.A. in International Affairs

University highlights, achievements and awards:

It seems cliché, but I stand by the saying that college is one of the best experiences of your life. When I came to Athens, I first volunteered for an organization called Common Ground hoping to meet people. I wrote articles for the bi-monthly newsletter and promoted local affiliate groups and events such as Athens Human Rights Festival, Food Not Bombs, Bike Athens, F.O.L.K., Free IT Athens, Agrarian Connections/Southern Seed Legacy, Athens Grow Green Coalition,  and others. Gaining some writing experience, I became a contributing writer to the student newspaper, the Red and Black. Quickly, though, I realized I wanted a more directed study and soon found enthusiastic students and professors in the School of Public and International Affairs that uncovered passions of mine I didn’t know existed. Once I entered SPIA, I decided that the first thing I should do is travel. This was my first trip out of the country. Having been awarded the SPIA Study Abroad Scholarship, I already knew where I wanted to go. It was just before this trip I became intrigued by the existence of inequality, and the widening of wealth and power gaps in many countries, even our own. And so, I decided I would go to South Africa.

When I returned from South Africa, the words of John F. Kennedy never rang more clearly, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” I began to apply this to my studies and my principles. It was in South Africa I met a good friend whose sister was the founder of a start-up nonprofit, Africa Volunteer Corps, an organization that connects African volunteers with African non-governmental organizations to enable Africans to take part in shaping their country. I was privileged to be among the first of the interns, and I’m proud to say AVC has already put its first volunteers on the ground in Moshi, Tanzania.

My next step was to go to the heart of politics and apply my studies to U.S. policymaking. After being accepted into the Washington Semester Program at UGA, I found an internship with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. This internship opened my eyes to how Congress ticks and what the daily life is like for a person in the advocacy sphere. I worked closely with legal counsels tracking legislation in priority policy issues like education reform, immigration reform, women’s rights, healthcare, voting rights, judicial nominations and much more. I was fortunate to be an intern constantly out of the office and on the Hill for hearings, events, press releases, protests, rallies – anything and everything. I also prepared a lot of immigration and coalition building advocacy materials for our grassroots efforts in states like South Carolina and Nebraska.

Now I hope to return to Washington, D.C. as soon as I am able and continue my work where I left off.

Hometown:

Columbus

High School:

Hardaway High School

Current Employment:

Ike & Jane Cafe and Bakery

I chose to attend UGA because...

because I loved the atmosphere. There was something about a vibrant university town that combined the arts with academia. For me, UGA and the entirety of Athens really matched what I thought would be an inspiring environment. The people I have met along the way, be it fellow students, friends, professors, musicians, scholars, researchers or writers, haven’t disappointed my expectations in the slightest. Being in the School of Public and International Affairs has introduced me to many like-minded students whose friendship has lasted for years. I feel like a lifelong recruiter of SPIA.

My favorite things to do on campus are...

read, study and enjoy a day on North campus lawn. The fall lends itself to some of the most famous, scenic moments on North campus. For example, the Gingko and Japanese maple trees shed their leaves leaving a layer of earthy yellow and red hues covering the ground; it is gorgeous. It is the best time to explore North campus and the Founder’s Garden.

Also, I love to visit Tate Center. There is so much activity going on, plus you never know who you might see in the free speech area. It gets pretty interesting.

When I have free time, I like...

to take advantage of everything this city has to offer. Whether it is jazz downtown, art workshops, canopy studios, fashion exhibits, exit shows and galleries at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, concerts at the Hodgson School of Music, farmers markets, independent films at the Athens Cine, local pottery classes, yoga, art and music festivals, bike rides on the green way and to the Botanical Gardens, lectures at UGA – something students should really take advantage of– circus and theatre performances at places such as the Morton Theatre and the Town and Gown, kayaking, hiking or even just a walk around downtown, there is never a shortage of things to do. Also, there is an enormous number of organizations that need volunteer help, such as Common Ground or Hands On Northeast Georgia, where you can meet genuinely great people.

When I hear students say this city is boring or dead, I always tell them they’re not looking hard enough. There is a reason why Athens is a well-known, creative city. But it takes getting to know the campus as well as the town and committing yourself to being more than just a student but rather a resident. Wherever you live, you should get to know the people, the places and the history. I’ve always taken to heart the idea of being involved wherever you live.

The craziest thing I've done is...

travel to South Africa. It is, hands down, the most beautiful country I’ve been to. The wildlife at the game reserve, Botlierskop, was incredible to see up close – impala, ostriches, buffalo, giraffes, elephants, lions and rhinoceros. I was able to horseback ride in the mountains through a herd of buffalo and impala, have monkeys jump on my tent and watch lions just over the horizon. I even road ahead of the group and came 15 feet away from a white rhino and its baby. It took my breath away. But aside from the wildlife, I entered a town whose people changed my life. It was the township of Kayamandi. A part of our service learning project in South Africa was to teach computer literacy and how to write curriculum vitas and resumes in a local library through a nonprofit organization called Prochorus. We taught everyone from the age of 18 to 45. On our breaks, we walked through the township and really got to see for ourselves the effects of apartheid. The people there were the most welcoming I met in South Africa, including the rich, white students who studied at the Stellenbosch campus just 10 minutes away. I remember walking outside of the library and being right in the middle of a protest against low train-worker wages. I remember not being scared and thinking, “...this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do.” One of the leaders who worked in Prochorus had a quote he repeated quite often from Mahatma Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The second ‘crazy’ adventure I had was when I backpacked with a group of close friends through the Andes on an Inca trail for several days on my way to Machu Picchu, known as “the Lost City of the Incas.”  But it wasn’t the jungle or the city of Cuzco that I remembered the most, but when we met two locals looking to help raise money for school supplies in a village nearby. It just so happened that we brought a duffle bag of school supplies on the trip with us as my friend is an education major and was hoping to donate it. We met up with these new friends of ours and made our way via bus to the city of Coya, surrounded by mountains and families who still practice shaman rituals – we realized our decision to leave our group may not have been that wise, but it was a thrill. After an hour of traveling, we were greeted by a mother and her two children who prepared dinner for us as a thank you for our donation to their new school. We ate, we chatted (as best we could), we played with her children whose first school day was the next morning, we drew pictures, played in their garden, we saw the school, gave hugs, and then said our goodbyes. To get back to Cuzco in a country we weren’t familiar with, we caught a ride with a family in a car full of chickens back into town. I was left speechless. It is moments like those that reaffirm what I hope to do one day – help others. Although I may not be able to articulate how beautiful that experience was, the jungle was nothing compared to that moment.

My favorite place to study is...

Espresso Royale Café – my favorite spot, close enough to campus but still not on campus. For four years I have studied here. I get my moments of socializing and coffee shop zen, puppies and studying. During exam time, I always study in the main library. You could hear a pin drop, and a cell phone going off is grounds for the meanest of stares – nothing like the SLC.

My favorite professor is...

(are) two great professors who both teach a program in Stellenbosch, South Africa and have each left an impression on me. Dr. Crepaz, head of the department of international affairs, was the first to introduce me to my major and solidify why I wanted to study international politics and development. It was in his class that I realized I would never really understand my country, if my country was the only one I knew. It was in this comparative politics class that my desire to travel and immerse myself in the theories of international relations began.

When I made it my goal to go abroad, the first program I chose was Stellenbosch, South Africa, directed by UGA’s Center for the Study of Global Issues. It was promised to be, and still is, one of the best college and life experiences. The history, the culture, the people and the politics – were of such depth and beauty I can never forget.  To this day, I remember what it felt like to visit Robben Island and walk into the cell of Nelson Mandela, where he had been imprisoned for 18 years under apartheid. Dr. Finlay, head of the department of sociology, is my other absolute favorite. They’re sort of a duo. If you meet one, you must meet the other. Dr. Finlay helped us in the study abroad program to understand the interaction between sociology and economics, and the effects it can have on countries like South Africa. Easily, it is one UGA experience I will never forget and the one in which I met some of the greatest friends – in that country and back at home.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with...

any Native American tribe. For me, it is not really a person but a people that I would like to spend an afternoon getting to know. It is a part of our history and yet we know so little. I guess I would have tons of questions regarding their beliefs between man and nature, the afterlife and any knowledge of how they lived.

If I knew I could not fail, I would...

solve the problems we face in reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Reaching each goal has a ripple effect on achieving the next. However, if I had to choose one I would say I want to achieve universal, primary education first. A lack of education is a seed that once planted creates a vicious cycle leading to poverty traps that are terribly difficult to escape, and for many, education is the only way out. To achieve something as grand as universal education, I believe leaders in the international arena, governmental and nongovernmental actors must also reach an agreement on a global partnership for development and address the needs of developed and developing countries – simultaneously and equally.

That said, there is one important thing that I have learned as an international affairs major, and that is there is no right or wrong answer. Everywhere is different, with different circumstances, beliefs, politics and needs, but that does not mean solutions are impossible. They must be developed and applied case by case.

After graduation, I plan to...

continue my work in the advocacy sphere. After participating in the Washington Semester Program, I realized I caught the D.C. bug. For me, I felt like a sponge taking in everything it had to offer. There were protests, marches and rallies outside of the Supreme Court and the White House, presidential motorcades, festivals, tons of free museums, special events, exhibits, farmers markets, music, arts and culture – not to mention the list of committee and subcommittee meetings in which you can see exactly how our political clock ticks. If anything, I want to be in a city that encourages that same motivation and excitement.

My ideal post-graduation plan is to successfully find a niche in the advocacy sphere of civil and human rights and hopefully move on to more direct field work in a specific country. I haven’t yet decided where as I’m still trying to explore what is out there.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be...

everything. With my travels and internships and friends and classes, I can’t say there is one moment specifically that is the best. There wouldn’t be enough room here to tell all of my memories, and I don’t hold one particularly higher than the other. These four years are cemented in my memory, and I will take them with me forever.