A blog post written by Sareema Husain
I was 19 when I attended Ship For World Youth (SWY for short), a unique cross-cultural exchange program that aims to provide youth with the opportunity to enhance their leadership skills in an increasingly globalized world. When I got the call from the SWY exec committee stating that I had been selected, I was just gotten home from another 10 hour shift at Canadian Tire. After getting into the countries top journalism school (and what I thought would be the absolute perfect program for myself), I dropped out after 2 semesters, disheartened by academic pursuits I once took on with zeal. Instead, I was passing the days working miscellaneous jobs in my suburban town outside of Toronto, erroneously trying to find meaning instead of creating it.
The drudgery of the curriculum, lack of social connections and a few mental health ticks led to school feeling like one giant drag. As the days went on, I began to view postsecondary education less like an opportunity and more like something I had to quickly wrap up so I could get on with real life. During SWY, I had the opportunity to speak to folks from eleven different countries about their schooling systems. I learned that every Kenyan player on the national rugby team had a Masters. When asked how she handled the stress of school and work, my Kenyan friend, Camille, simply stated “you’re born a warrior”. I think of how easy it was to share my mental health woes and boycott deadlines last year and wonder if a Kenyan student would ever dare do the same. “You don’t do something you’re passionate about in Kenya” Camille says, “you do something practical”. But in Japan it’s the opposite. I am surprised when my Japanese friends tell me they are in school for literature and philosophy. They tell me it doesn’t matter what they study because at the end of the day, they know they are going to work for a company. The conversations continue and my interest in cross-cultural exchange blossoms.
Upon returning from SWY, I was reminded that education is an investment and therefore, I decide to go back to school for Political Science and Cultural studies. I graduate during the height of the pandemic and my path since then has been a wonky one indeed. I think you miss out on a lot of character development if you’re not found crying into your pillow as a fresh graduate, wondering how many more job rejections you will have to face until you finally land that golden gig. But I’m a tad bit wiser than I was a year ago, and I now know there is no such thing as a “golden gig”, let alone golden school, career, etc.
I received my big break when I got accepted into the International Youth Internship Program (IYIP). Finally, I could combine my love for cross-cultural exchange and human rights while gaining experience in the field of international development! I was a Private Partnerships Intern for the Regional Bureau of the World Food Programme(WFP) in Nairobi, Kenya. Due to the pandemic, this position was remote. My main task was to support the bureau’s effort to increase WFP positioning in the private sector, whether it was through conducting research about potential partners or assisting in communication and advocacy efforts.
It was uncommon for my managers to have a remote intern, so they created new projects that engaged my leadership abilities. I built an Operational Needs Analysis project alongside another intern. We met weekly to construct questions that would help the Regional Bureau understand what was happening on the ground in the country offices and uncover innovations that were already at play and could be upscaled. I was also given the opportunity to write an internal article about a new partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, for which I conducted lengthy research about food systems and how WFP is interweaving such strategies into private sector partnerships within the region of East Africa.
The richest learnings came from the trainings, provided by both UNA Canada and the Regional Bureau (Nairobi) at WFP. Interns were able to gain great insight from guests panelists during virtual panels hosted by UNA Canada, guests who had careers in diplomacy, government ministries, UN agencies and Canadian Non-Profit associations. I was also able to learn from my fellow cohort through organic conversations alongside formal presentations; UNA facilitated a session where interns were able to share their challenges and success stories in incorporating cross-cutting development themes into their work. This rendered complex themes of gender equality, environmental sustainability, and democratic governance easily digestible, as we were able to see how they are being implemented and actionized within UN organizations around the world.
I am thankful for this opportunity and feel lucky to have been acquainted with many inspiring people in such a short amount of time. The parts I loved most were sparklingly human; laughing with my supervisor about dating norms in Nairobi vs. Toronto, chatting with a fellow intern about post-graduation stress, meeting the IYIP cohort in Montreal and playing tour-guide, attending a virtual Human-Centered design course, and learning and appreciating the context that shaped my colleagues lives and career outcomes.
To conclude, I’d like to emphasize a mantra that has given me much solace during the ups and downs of the last year: Life happens in seasons. Yes, I’m writing this blog post as a IYIP alumni but I wish to share the lesser moments as well, such as when I received my degree and felt no sense of accomplishment, only imminent anxiety about the slim job prospects in my horizon and the accumulating debt beneath me. I don’t mean to make this sound like one of those bravado LinkedIn posts that state “Applied to 999 jobs, finally got one, don’t give up!”. The transition after graduating university or college is difficult, and it takes time and patience to release internalized narratives that have conditioned many students, myself included, to feel like they are perpetually falling behind. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to be patient. It’s ok to cry and eat Ben & Jerrys when you’re feeling anxious or stuck. Careers rarely move upward in a straight line; they ebb and flow and wind their way through time, rarely making sense in the moment. Make peace with this. Most importantly, seek out community. They are essential to keep us going, especially through turbulent times. Like in SWY, my internship was a reminder that the informal program is just as important as the predetermined agenda; barriers and misconceptions are overcome as you talk to fellow humans, minds are widened over coffee chats and your favourite colleague can easily turn into a life-long friend. To deepen mutual understanding and embody international cooperation, one can simply start by talking to the stranger beside them.
Are you a youth or student interested in getting involved in diplomacy or international collaboration? Here are some tips:
• Attend cross-cultural exchanges. When you experience a different culture, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and those around you—deepening your knowledge of foreign cultures and strengthening international relationships. Enroll in a semester abroad or check out Canada’s French Immersion Program
• Learn languages. Folks who work in the UN must know two of the six official languages well enough to conduct official work in them.
• Seek experiential learning opportunities while in school, such as co-ops, internships, and field studies.
• Apply for the next cohort of IYIP and gain personal and professional competencies that will prepare you for an international career
• If you want to work for the UN, think about the specifics. What do you want to do day-to-day? Do you see yourself working in an office or on the field? Think about what you want to be contributing to an organization and than build as much experience as you can to carve out a thematic niche for yourself, whether its in gender, food, technology, etc.
• Do not limit yourself to just UN internships. Apply for internships with international organisations, embassies & permanent missions, government agencies, think tanks, research institutes, and development agencies. It’s all about beefing up your CV and gaining transferable skills.
If you want to learn more about any of the above or simply want to connect, feel free to reach out to me via email or on LinkedIn!