Starting at the top

En route to Rice, student delivers speech at White House

Rice News staff

Rice wasn’t Shannon McNamara’s first-choice college until she stepped on campus. From that moment, there was no other.

“This sounds extremely corny, but when I first walked onto the campus, it was one of those moments,” she said. ”It was, ‘Boom!’ Magical. I felt like I had to go there.”

Shannon McNamara, pictured middle of the bottom, gave a speach at the White House as part of the United Nations Foundation's GirlUp.

McNamara is one of this year’s early admissions to the Class of 2015, but there is something that sets her apart from her classmates-to-be: She’s probably the only one to have delivered an address at the White House.

The New Jersey native got that extraordinary opportunity last month when she visited Washington, D.C., for an International Woman’s Day 100th anniversary celebration hosted by first lady Michelle Obama. McNamara was there as part of a United Nations Foundation organization called GirlUp, which promotes the welfare of young women in developing nations.

“I would never have thought or dreamed that one day I would be speaking at the White House,” McNamara said. “It still hasn’t sunk in, reality-wise. I can’t believe it happened.”

It happened quickly. McNamara said she and 15 other key advisers to GirlUp were put forth by the United Nations to deliver the minute-and-a-half talk, and the first lady’s staff selected her. She had 20 minutes to prepare. No pressure there.

“They had to send it to the U.N. and to the White House for approval, so that was pretty stressful. It was hard, but only having a minute-and-a-half to work with made it easier.”

She said Obama was “just so authentic up close and really real and nice, everything you thought a first lady could and should be. She kind of embodies that.”

The first lady mentioned McNamara three times in her talk, “which was incredible,” she said. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Shannon, for your inspiring way of being, thank you for what you do.’ I started tearing up. I thought I might pass out right there.”

McNamara’s own organization, SHARE in Africa, has been empowering girls in Tanzania for the last three years. “We do this by setting up libraries in four schools and providing the schools with electricity,” said the senior at Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, N.J., who is also setting up a scholarship fund “so the girls in our program can continue their educations and don’t have to worry about early marriage or anything like that.”

She said about 500 girls are part of the program, “but we let everybody who wants it have access to our books. There are about 3,000 people in Africa being impacted by the program.”

McNamara’s parents inspired her interest in the developing world in the best possible way — by taking her there.

“My parents have always told me and my brother and sister that we won the birth lottery in life by being born in America,” she said. “We have the freedom and the power to use our voices for good. So they took us on international volunteer trips on our summer vacations. We had volunteered in Peru and Costa Rica, and then one summer we decided we finally wanted to go to Africa.

“That was three years ago, and we’ve been traveling back to Africa every year since. Africa’s poor are extremely different from the rest of the world’s poor. It’s incredible to see people who have absolutely nothing but are still happy and thankful for anything you do for them. People in Africa touched our hearts.

“We realized we might have the potential to make a big difference here,” she said. “That’s why we keep on going back.”

McNamara founded SHARE (short for SHannon’s After-school Reading Exchange) with high school friends and grew the organization through local Girl Scout groups and church classes. It now has more than 800 volunteers in the United States, and McNamara has been a featured guest on NBC’s ”Nate Berkus Show” and is the subject of an upcoming report on CBS News.

McNamara hopes to bring SHARE to Rice. The chance to do so was part of its appeal, she said. She plans to focus on sociology, anthropology and women and gender studies.

“Getting my nonprofit work involved at the college level is something I really wanted when I looked at colleges, and Rice definitely provides that opportunity for me,” she said.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.