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…