Imagine your ideal job. If it involves rubbing shoulders with international diplomats and using your skills to influence some of the world’s most pressing issues, you might be dreaming about the job Lisa Harper ’05, has had for the last year. This Catholic lawyer with a passion for social justice has served as an intern in the Mission of the Holy See, the Vatican’s presence as a permanent observer at the United Nations in New York City.
Each morning, Harper learns the day’s schedule at a 9:30 meeting. She works with two committees of the General Assembly: The Third Committee on Human Rights and the Sixth Committee on Legal Issues. In addition, she has worked with the Commission on the Status of Women. As one of two lay delegates for the Holy See office, she participates in committee discussions. “In those meetings, I’m the face and voice of the Holy See,” Harper said.
Harper appreciates gaining a global perspective on critical issues. She describes her opportunity to learn as an informal master’s degree. She also values being able to take what her faith tells her are the right positions on these issues. For example, Harper said the United States does not support an international right to food aid. Supporting that right brings with it an obligation to provide food for the rest of the world. As a moral authority, the Mission of the Holy See can fully support giving food aid to all who need it.
Harper took a large pay cut when she gave up a position with Twin Cities law firm Bassford Remele to pursue the internship. “At the Holy See office, we say the work is ‘spiritually rewarding,’” she smiled. “I was so fortunate to learn a lot about civil litigation at a highly professional firm that always took the ethical high road,” she said. “It was important work, but I wanted to take a step away and move forward on my journey into social justice.”
Reflecting on her St. Thomas experiences, she said that her connection with the university runs deep. The late Monsignor Terrence Murphy, president of St. Thomas from 1966 to 1991, earned his doctorate at Georgetown at the same time as Harper’s grandmother, Mary Angela Harper, who later served on the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees. “Monsignor Murphy was like another grandfather to me,” Harper said. So when it came time to choose a college, St. Thomas was at the top of Harper’s list. She graduated in 2002 with a degree in psychology and behavioral neuroscience.
Choosing a law school was not so easy. At first, Harper didn’t think it would look good to prospective employers if she received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the same institution. But since she wanted to stay in Minnesota, she applied to the University of Minnesota Law School and to St. Thomas.
Accepted at both institutions, she went to visit. “The people at the U of M weren’t very helpful,” Harper said. “They just pointed me toward the library.” Her experience at St. Thomas was very different. “When I met with [Director of Admissions] Cari Haaland, her face just lit up. She showed me the plans for the [law school] building, gave me a tour and introduced me to everybody.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to be serious about law school, I need the school to be serious about me,’ and St. Thomas proved that it was,” Harper said. Her choice was a good fit. “I could not have picked a better place to go to law school,” she said. “With its student-centered approach, the School of Law lived up to my expectations.”
Harper’s fellow students were a big part of her positive experience. “The School of Law attracts a certain type of student, one who is focused on social justice or is drawn to its Catholic identity,” she said. “The people are intelligent, articulate and genuinely care about you and your success.”
It was one of those caring people who helped Harper connect with the Mission of the Holy See. A law classmate, Lucas Swanepoel, was one of the first two St. Thomas alumni to work at the U.N. office as a result of the relationship between Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, and Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s ambassador to the U.N. After a conversation with Swanepoel, Harper decided to apply for the position. The result was the opportunity of a lifetime, one that allows Harper to use her training to work for social justice.