From Craigyhill to Capitol Hill: Larne student on prestigious US programme

WIP student Billie-Jo McDowell.
WIP student Billie-Jo McDowell.

A Craigyhill native has told of how a prestigious US-based leadership programme has given her future career plans a boost.

Former Larne Grammar pupil Billie-Jo McDowell, who studies Social Work student at Queen’s University, took up a place on the Washington Ireland Program for Service and Leadership (WIP) earlier this year.

Billie-Jo.

Billie-Jo.

The initiative aims to develop promising leaders through a programme committed to building a future of peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Each year, WIP selects 30 talented students to join its network of leaders and influencers by completing a 12-month program of service and leadership development, which includes a summer in Washington DC or New York City.

Notable alumni includes Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, WIP Class of 2000; Lord Mayor of Belfast Nuala McAllister, WIP Class of 2010, and DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, WIP Class of 2002.

"I first heard about WIP during my second year of university," said Billie-Jo, who is due to graduate in Social Work next year after completing a BSc in Geography in 2016.

"At that point I did not feel I was ready to apply. Three years later I decided to apply as I felt I was more set on my career path and would better benefit from the program at that stage of my academic career. The program itself has a focus on service and that combined with their values very much resonated with my own values and future career."

Selection for WIP 2018 was highly competitive, with 300 students from across the island of Ireland competing for the opportunity to be on the class.

"The selection process was very tough," recalled Billie Jo. "First there was the application with five essay style questions and two CVs - one leadership and one service. There was then the interview which was comprised of two stages – the individual interview and the group interview. It was hard but helped me to develop my interview skills."

The programme also included a six-week period on placement at the Brady Campaign for the Prevention of Gun Violence.

When it comes to a typical day for WIP students, activities can vary greatly. "Monday to Thursday I attend my internship 9 to 5 and while there, I get to do a lot of amazing tasks and interact with amazing people," the 23-year-old added.

"On Tuesday nights as part of the Washington Ireland Program, we have our discussion series where we debate different topics between ourselves. On Thursday nights we have our speaker series, where speakers come in to discuss the three key themes of our summer - resilience and leadership in difficult times; dealing with difference; and career. On Fridays, we take part in various service projects in and around Washington DC.

"I have had the chance to engage in many different opportunities such as volunteering at a school, lobbying in Capitol Hill, right down to serving breakfast to the homeless at a Non-Government Organisation.

"The relationships I have built and the advice I have been given has been spectacular and has really helped me affirm what direction my career is heading."

And what would the Larne local hope to see herself doing in five year's time?

"I hope to be working in a mental health social work setting, while also helping with governmental policy development," she said.