Samantha Margolis '21 stood at the podium in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council. She faced a panel of stakeholders hailing from every corner of the globe, ready to present on humanitarian concerns in Madagascar. Weeks of research, revision and rehearsal primed her to face the crowd with confidence. This was her moment.
As she spoke, Margolis felt an immense pressure not confined to the brightly lit chamber in which she stood. Two missed calls at 2:00 a.m. and crying coworkers had woken her earlier that morning. The date was March 12, when President Donald Trump suspended travel from 26 European countries in advance of the oncoming pandemic. It would be Margolis's final workday as a research intern at United Nations Watch in Geneva, Switzerland.
"I [had] never felt that kind of level of anxiety," Margolis said. "There was a deadly disease spreading, I was being kicked out of the country...and I had to put it all out of my brain to focus on [presenting]."
With her European days numbered, Margolis was torn. Her new friends skipped the day's work and braved the 40-degree weather to jump in Lake Geneva's chilly waters. Temptation beckoned her to do the same.
But while her friends donned bathing suits, Margolis chose her business suit.
"I knew I needed to speak," she says.
Two hours after Margolis's closing remarks, the UN suspended the Human Rights Council's meetings. Hers was one of the last speeches in the chamber. In overcoming the moment's uncertainty, it was her proudest moment abroad.
Fittingly, Margolis traveled to Geneva seeking adversity. When she began planning her trip abroad in the fall of her sophomore year, the rigor of Boston University's Geneva program intrigued her. Seven weeks in a classroom followed by eight weeks as an intern was exactly the workload she desired. She spoke none of Geneva's three main languages – German, Italian and French. And no other Lehigh students would accompany her. In Geneva, Margolis would start wholly anew.
Despite these obstacles, Margolis soon settled in. Hailing from New York City's busy streets, she found tranquility in the quaint architecture and easygoing lifestyle of Old Town Geneva.
"I'm a sucker for history. When I walked around, it felt like I was in a time capsule," she says.
Weekend trips to wristwatch museums and hours spent eating chocolate and cheese in outdoor cafes balanced out demanding work weeks in the bustling "New Town" Geneva that reminded her of home.
But Margolis eventually fell in love with New Town as well. The city's strong multicultural presence kept her constantly attentive. She could sharpen her Arabic over a two-hour fondue lunch, on occasion. And in the evenings, she worked from her flat and pored over research on international affairs until she fell asleep.
There is an ending to this story in which Margolis returned home disappointed, wishing just one weekend more for travel, leisure or Swiss chocolate. But her willingness to embrace new cultures and new experiences has left her anything but.
"You can make a community anywhere," she says.
Sam Margolis is a rising senior studying international relations and Arabic with a minor in history. She is from New York City, and participates in the women's club soccer team and Greek life. Her speech at the UN is available to view here.