BYU students use Arabic to win international essay competition, address the UN General Assembly

Rachel Lott and Jamie Clegg, two BYU Arabic language students, were selected to participate in a United Nations General Assembly based on essays written in Arabic. The pair felt honored and humbled when they realized they were among only 10 finalists chosen from applicants worldwide to represent their language.

Jamie Clegg Speaks at UN
Jamie Clegg addresses a United Nations General Assembly

The winners spent a week in New York where they worked in groups to address world issues, presented before the council of the UN and interacted with foreign diplomats.

In total, ELS Educational Services and United Nations Academic Impact selected 60 winners from 36 countries to represent the six languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, English and Spanish).

Writing a Winning Essay

Lott and Clegg took on the challenge of writing an essay about “global citizenship, cultural understanding, and the role that multilingualism can have in fostering both.” To answer this question, both students drew on experiences they had while on a study abroad to Jordan.

“It was a really intense program,” said Clegg, a recent BYU graduate from Kaysville, Utah. “We spent several hours a day speaking to natives. Twice a week I went to an orphanage, and I loved spending time with the kids there and talking to them.”

“There is a connection between culture and linguistic understanding,” said Spencer Scoville, professor of Ancient and Near-Eastern Languages at BYU. “Students who go on the study abroad come back from Jordan with a really different understanding of their place in the world and what role they can play going forth.”

The winners of the competition went through a rigorous three-stage screening process.

“First we submitted an essay that was entirely our work; no help from teachers was allowed,” said Clegg. “Once the essay was reviewed and we were selected, we had to submit our grades and a letter of recommendation. If we passed that level, then we had to do a Skype interview with a native Arabic speaker to assess our speaking abilities, and to make sure we really were up to the challenge of debating issues in Arabic.”

Their unique experiences and mature insights helped set them apart through every stage of the competition and earned them a trip to New York.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly

In July 2016, Lott and Clegg attended the Many Languages, One World Global Youth Forum in Hempstead, New York, to take on some of the world’s problems. They broke into six groups (one for each language) and spent a week addressing one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations.

“You’d think with learning Arabic that we’d get something like ‘building peaceful communities,’ or ‘helping the refugee crisis,’” said Lott, a junior at BYU. “But then we were randomly selected to talk about combating climate change. We were surprised, but in the end it’s all one goal, to make the world a better place.”

Rachel Lott Speaks at UN
Rachel Lott addresses a United Nations General Assembly

Lott and Clegg spent a week working with other Arabic-speaking students to do research on climate change and create an action plan addressing the issue.

“My favorite part of all this was working with people from so many different countries and cultures, even ones I hadn’t heard of before,” said Lott. “Everyone there spoke at least three languages, and a lot of people brought desserts or souvenirs from their homes to share with people.”

After creating the action plan, each student chose a topic and started working on their individual speeches. Lott prepared to speak about the use of composting to reduce climate change. Clegg outlined a plan for raising awareness of climate change. 

By the end of the week, all 60 winners of the essay competition were prepared to present in their respective language to the United Nations General Assembly. Each student spoke in a special meeting at the UN headquarters in New York.

“The night before people were pacing around and memorizing or reading their speeches over and over again,” Clegg said. “It was kind of terrifying to present to the UN, especially in Arabic.”

Following their speeches, they had a dinner with UN diplomats from all over the world. They even had the chance to speak with Maher Nasser, the Director of the Outreach Division in the United Nations Department of Public Information.  

Moving Forward with Arabic

Lott and Clegg returned from New York with a new vision of what they can accomplish.

Lott, who is studying International Relations, is back in Jordan working as a teacher’s assistant for the BYU study abroad. She is excited to see what doors her Arabic opens in the future.

Clegg, who graduated last August, is applying to graduate schools to study comparative literature in Arabic. If that doesn’t work out, she feels confident that there are other places to go.

“I also love to work with refugees,” Clegg said. “My friends and I have actually been planning for months a 5K/10K race in Provo called Run4Refuge. 100 percent of the proceeds go to [the] Doctors Without Borders Syrian Crisis Response Team. It’s on October 8th, so we’re keeping busy with that!”

Watch Clegg (5:31-7:32) and Lott (11:55-13:58) address the United Nations. 

Writer: Alec Sears