UN Office Matters

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  • "You lack third world experience"

    After a semester interning at UNICEF HQ, I returned as a volunteer for a couple of months after graduation.

    I was a bit hesitant at first. Being a non-paid volunteer with two Ivy League degrees wasn’t my dream graduation present. But this was an opportunity to do what I hadn’t really done during my internship days: network. 

    Networking is at the heart of the UN system. But I wasn’t good at it. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t cut out to ‘play that game.’ I’m not an introvert by nature, but the thought of shmoozing people I didn’t know or trying to impress big wigs at meetings with ‘smart’ questions that I already knew the answers for was discomforting and tiring, to say the least. Later I learned that networking doesn't have to be about the people you know - that can only carry you so far. It's about having the right people know the great work that you do (more on that later).

    During those months as a volunteer, I wrote to about 30 people at UNICEF with the classic “I would like your advice” approach. Of all those cold emails, I managed to secure two meetings. 

    The first was with a young Child Protection Specialist, who no longer works for the organization. I was determined to make a good impression. After a relatively short conversation, she told me she was ready to diagnose ‘my main problem,’ as she saw it (drum roll, please): “You lack third world experience.” 

    She went on to enlighten me with her own ‘third world’ experience. Having lived all her life in Minnesota, she explained that she interned for a year in South Africa after graduating from Law School in the US.

    After a long pause, where I expected her to continue with more ‘third world’ stories, I realized that she was done. That one year in South Africa was her triumphant moment living amongst the poor. A tall feat that somehow opened her the gates for a job with UNICEF. I humbly asked her if my 20 years of living in a working-class, single-family household in the countryside of Brazil, with no exit strategy, also counted as third world experience. She flat out said no. 

    For as tempting as it may be, I won't get into a north-south debate here. I had many years to dwell on this episode. When I think about it now, I want to believe it was simply a bad choice of words... But the truth is that having a long 'list' of different 'field' experiences under your belt is a great advantage when it comes to working in development (and, yes, the 'field' almost always refers to developing countries...).

    It was also my impression that a long list was perhaps more important than the actual substance of the work, but maybe I’m being cheeky. Again, that ‘list’ is a guaranteed gateway to impress employers. Sad for me, 'my own list' was almost inexistent. I had a young family and couldn’t afford venturing from place to place to build up my resume.

    Lucky for me, my other meeting was a bit more promising…

  • What do I remember from my intern days?...

    First I remember how little I knew about UNICEF, as an organization, and how everyone took this lack of knowledge for granted. Later I found out that some Country Offices have orientation programs, which allow you to have meetings with the heads of programs to learn what they are doing.

    This is very helpful. But I remembered, as an intern, I had more basic questions about the organization as a whole that I felt were too dumb to ask... (how does UNICEF operate? what is that that we actually did? how did the fundraising work? who was the executive board?). These questions went unwanswered until I took the PPP (program, policy and practice?) induction program many years later, as a staff member. Needless to say, I had lots of a-ha moments during that workshop...

     I also remembered being surprised at the many high-level       things I was responsible for. This was not the kind of 'bring- coffee-to-your-boss' situation. I had my hands on very important stuff, like writing facilitator's guides on gender mainstreaming, speeches for meetings at the General Assembly, draft human rights reports, etc.

    It took me a while  to shake off the 'wow' effect at the thought that I had a tiny,  microscopic influence on what I saw as major policies that  could affect the lives of many. I felt proud entering the UNICEF  and the UN building. I felt important.

    Later on, I learned that  few people actually read these reports, anyway.. 

    Finally, I remember quite vividly thinking about my next move, especially about the kind of job I would like to apply for when I graduated. Naively I thought that if I slaved away as an intern for 6 months, there would be a shiny job happily waiting for me in the end of the tunnel. 

    But the reality was different, of course. Back then, I remember seeing an ad for two entry-level (P2) temporary assistance (TA) positions. They seemed like cool jobs, something related to doing research for one of organization's flagship publications, The State of the World's Children. Let me reiteraite: these were P2 and TAs. In other words, very entry level positions.

    I didn't apply for them. But I thought these were exactly the kinds of jobs that I would eventually get once I graduated from school and put in my time at UNICEF as an intern. Great was my surprise, however, when I eventually met the successful candidates for these posts: not only did they have PhDs from top universities, but they also had tons of work experience working in Africa and Asia (nicely done, Katie!).

    And then I knew that my trajectory from intern to staff member would take a while... and it did... 

  • The life of an intern

    A colleague from my master's program at Columbia was doing her internship at UNICEF HQ in NYC. She told me that her unit was looking for someone else to help out with the work load. So, on top of my studies, a long commute to the city, and the guilty of not being a stay-at-home parent, I began a twice-a-week non-paid internship on the 4th floor of UNICEF House. 

    There are many requirements to become an intern at UNICEF, but the most basic one is that you have to be enrolled in a master's program. I think exceptions can be made, but I'm not sure... While you can apply directly via the website, it helps to do some research beforehand. 

    This is where the six degrees of separation comes in handy. It's quite certain that you know somebody who knows somebody who works at UNICEF. Find out in which Country Office and focus area you want to be interning at. This should not be an internship for the sake of internship: you need to find a match for your professional and personal interests. You're working for free, so make sure you get the most out of it!

    Once you find what you're looking for, begin a conversation with your potential supervisor to agree on the terms of reference for your contract. It's much better to have this dialogue early to save any disappointments down the line and make sure both parties can gain from this experience.

    Not long ago, I did exactly that when a student wrote to me expressing her desire to intern at UNICEF Mozambique. We had long skype calls and eventually narrowed down her deliverables and areas of work. She went on to do an amazing job and even published a case study based on this experience (way to go, Alejandra!).

    I should add, however, that this kind of approach to internships is the exception rather than the norm. So it's up to the intern to try to get the most out of this experience, so don't settle for just an office experience - try to do something substantive (true story: I've met an intern once whose job was to come up with ideas for tweets for her boss... *sigh...).

    Below is my son's take on the life of an intern...:-)

    I also think it's better to have an internship at a Country Office as opposed to Headquarters or a Regional Office. You gain more 'hands-on' experience, it's a smaller work environment and you get to learn a lot more. I didn't have that luxury, so I started my UN career through the maze of a headquarters environment... More about that later!

  • The Office

    When I first joined UNICEF, I would come home and talk about my day during dinner with my husband and son. He was about 8 at the time and I wasn't sure he was actually listening to my rambling about office issues: stories about crazy bosses, inefficiencies at the workplace, unfair attitudes, petty behavior, etc...

    But he did. And he started drawing cartoons about what he understood from this world. He named them "UN Office Matters." They always made me laugh. And laughing helps you keep your sanity. Perhaps that's why the TV show, The Office, was so popular. Below you can see his rendition when I learned I got my recent promotion.

    I've had many people asking me about how to get a job at UNICEF or what's like working there, so I decided to write a blog about these snipts of my worklife, from frustration to amazing moments of pride. Hopefully, these blogs will be like these early dinners conversations, but a little more edited, of course!