As our 30-strong Belfast peloton of positivity weaved its way through the packed pavements (sorry, sidewalks) of New York City last week, I found myself bearing the leader’s metaphorical yellow jersey but with nary an idea of how to get from A to B

Enter Billie-Jo McDowell, a youthful member of the Queen’s University Belfast delegation joining the Belfast mission in town for the tenth annual New York-New Belfast conference.

Turns out, Billie-Jo was a dab hand at directions and, with smartphone in hand, served as pathfinder par excellence, shepherding our band of Belfast pilgrims to venues which required not only an internal compass but the ability to negotiate the exasperating maze which is the New York subway. Step off the sidewalk into traffic while looking the wrong way — they drive on the right! — was never a danger as she kept our platoon moving forward — on the double.
Turns out that Billie-Jo’s basic degree was in geography which explained a lot.

But her contribution didn’t stop there because her input to the Widening Participation in Higher Education panel discussion was the shining light of our confab — not bad when two of her fellow-panelists were Fr Joe Parkes who helped found the breakthrough Cristo Rey school network and former Bloomberg commissioner Rob Walsh who is now point man for Manhattan College in the Bronx.

Billie-Jo shared with the rapt room her experience of growing up in the foster care system and a period of homelessness while at university. Her spell in a homeless shelter while studying came to an end thanks to the intervention of the Queen’s team.

It was a moving, inspirational address, free of bitterness and devoid of self-pity. But Billie-Jo wants to use her experience to ensure others who come from the margins have a better shot at getting to university — and a helping hand when they get there so they can stay the course.

The new President at Queen’s, Ian Greer, has fledgling plans to do just that by admitting to the venerable institution 200 additional young people from low-income families — with funds coming from fresh government support and the Irish global family.

That Billie-Jo beat the odds to get to uni was only half the good news because she also revealed that on the morning of the conference her social work degree results were posted online and, of course, she had passed with flying colors.

The New York-New Belfast conference with its instructive theme Be The Bridge had much to cheer: a visit to the World Trade Center 46th floor studio of East Belfast artist Marcus Robinson; a roundtable hosted by Möet Hennessy CEO Jim Clerkin of Rostrevor, a personal tour of City Hall by fearless Friend of Belfast and Chair of the Council Finance Committee Danny Dromm, and a final reception on the balcony of Pier A, looking out at the Statue of Liberty as the sun went down.

But for me, Billie-Jo was the star of the show. She symbolizes the bright future of Belfast which, for all our faults and missteps, people of good heart and of all persuasions, right across this great city, wish to build.

At the close of the New York-New Belfast Conference, we issued an open invite to our many allies in the Big Apple to come to Belfast in October for the Belfast International Homecoming to help shape Tomorrow’s Belfast – what we might just start referring to as Billie-Jo’s Belfast!

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