It wasn't the typical, tourist trip to the United Nations.
Rutgers students who traveled to U.N. headquarters in Manhattan last October were granted an extraordinarily high level of access that allowed them to meet privately with several key players in the Mideast.
The students had a sit-down with Iraq's ambassador to the U.N. – Hamid Al-Bayati – who spoke frankly about the state of his country and of the U.S.-led war.
The students also learned from an Al-Jazeera bureau chief that the Arab satellite network once had a strong relationship with the Bush administration – until it began broadcasting scenes of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was an amazing experience. We actually had a conversation with the ambassador, we were able to ask him questions," said Brianna Gillespie, one of about 50 students from Rutgers' faculty member Hamid Abdeljaber's classes who went on the trip.
The VIP treatment provides a glimpse of the future for Rutgers, now that the university has entered into an intriguing, new association with the U.N.'s Department of Public Information, or DPI.
Last June, Rutgers became one of 16 universities worldwide to obtain an affiliated status with the DPI - a special relationship similar to that of nonprofit, humanitarian groups known as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
The U.N. has long developed partnerships with NGOs to help it communicate its mission and reach people worldwide with its programs. Extending that relationship to universities like Rutgers helps the U.N. develop lines of communication and cooperation with the academic community.
For Rutgers, the educational advantages of the relationship are enormous.
"It opens up a long list of opportunities to the Rutgers community, said Joanna Regulska, the dean of international programs in the School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) who together with Maryella Hannum, senior program coordinator, oversaw the application process.
Regulska said the benefits include U.N. internships, opportunities for international networking, and access for faculty and students at a multitude of briefings, conferences and workshops, at U.N. headquarters or outside the United States.
Last September, for example, Ben Sifuentes-Jauregui, an associate professor in SAS, attended the annual DPI/NGO conference in Mexico City. The conference brought together 1,500 representatives from about 70 countries to discuss strategies toward universal disarmament.
Not only did Sifuentes-Jauregui get to witness a global gathering of immense importance, he also was able to expand his own research on the disparate ways that language is used across cultures. He observed, for example, that the term 'disarmament' had very different associations for participants in the conference.
"For people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, disarmament did not mean the same thing it did in the United States, where it's understood in terms of arms control," said Sifuentes-Jauregui, who is chair of the Department of American Studies. "For poor nations, it's about getting guns off the streets."
Playing a key, behind-the-scenes role at the conference was Rutgers student Alexi-Noelle O'Brien-Hosein, who was serving in her capacity as an intern at the DPI. She helped write the conference program, including the biographies of the speakers, the schedule, and the introduction.
"The conference itself was overwhelming," O'Brien-Hosein said. "And one of the overall benefits of the internship is that you feel more mature afterward. Now I have this experience that relates directly to my political science classes, and it's not just theory."
Regulska said there are many ways Rutgers can take advantage of the affiliation. Her office is reviewing options that include expanding the number of internships available at the UN and creating a connection with Rutgers Study Abroad so that students could learn about their host nation in the U.N. before their trip or visit with different missions after they return from their stay abroad. Click here for more information on Rutgers' affiliation with the U.N.
For Abdeljaber, a lecturer at SAS who organized the Manhattan trip, one of the enduring benefits is exposing students to the broader international arena. A former official with the DPI himself, Abdeljbaber said that American students, in general, don't know a lot about the U.N.
"It's a great opportunity to go just a few miles and get exposed to international issues," said Abdeljaber, who teaches courses in Middle Eastern Studies. "The issues that I teach, many of them are debated in the United Nations and there is a wealth of information and documentation at the U.N."