Up for a rewarding adventure? Consider the UN

Posted on Thursday, October 20, 2016

Elias Leon

Elias León outside the Paris conference centre where the UN climate change summit took place in December 2015. Photo: Alena Kotelnikova

By Leah Dagg

To mark United Nations Day on October 24, the Gazette asked two uOttawa students and two recent graduates to share their experiences getting involved with the UN. The verdict: they recommend it.

Elias León went on a third-year exchange to Sciences Po in Paris while he was studying toward his uOttawa honours bachelor in international studies and modern languages. He found his first unpaid position with the UN by cold-calling the Canadian delegation to the Paris-based UNESCO, which led to an offer from the Saint Lucia delegation to serve as an adviser. His responsibilities included voting on behalf of the small Caribbean nation at UNESCO’s 37th General Conference in November 2013.

Stéphanie Lacroix hiking in Zimbabwe.

After graduating from uOttawa in 2014, León was hired as a paid project officer by the United Nations Association in Canada (UNAC) and later oversaw its work on climate change and sustainable development. He was the association’s sole representative at the COP21 conference in Paris, where he presented a report that he had helped prepare following extensive cross-Canada consultations.

Now studying law at McGill University, León looks back fondly on his stints working for the UN, which he says can be incredibly rewarding, if somewhat bureaucratic.

He adds: “You’ll also take on many hats and give up a lot of personal time.”

Internships in Asia, Africa

Mehr Singh, a fourth year student in international development and globalization, did an internship from January to March of this year with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok. She followed  the Faculty of Social Sciences internship application process and was hired through UNAC’s International Diplomacy and Development Internship Programme.

This experience in Thailand was invaluable, she says, as it confirmed her desire to work in development. She was nervous at first, being in a fast-paced environment far from home. However, she quickly embraced the new lifestyle and discovered that she really thrived outside of her comfort zone.

Stéphanie Lacroix, who graduated with an honours bachelor’s of social sciences in 2015, is currently doing an internship through the same UNAC program. After a lengthy application process involving an online application and two phone interviews, she was offered a placement with the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in Harare. Lacroix is loving the experience and has met a diverse group of people from around the world.

Kelsea Walsh at the 2015 National Model UN conference in New York.

However, she cautions that the cost of living in Zimbabwe and some other developing countries can be even higher than in Canada, making finances a potential obstacle to taking an unpaid internship. Nevertheless, she feels these positions are the “perfect post-grad opportunity for anyone who wants to dip their toes into the UN.”

Model UN course

Kelsea Walsh took part in uOttawa’s Model UN in 2015, when she was in the fourth year of an international studies and modern languages degree. Admission to the program is competitive, and applying involved a cover letter and group interview. Now in her fifth year, she highly recommends the class, which simulates the work of UN Security Council and General Assembly committees.

“If you have space in your schedule, don’t miss it!” she says. “Most of the class is spent debating and working with peers to develop priorities and action items on the topic of the day, with the professor there as a coach.” Her classmates grew close during the fascinating week they spent together at the National Model UN conference, which is held in New York every spring.

The Model UN is now offered as a winter-session course for credit to upper year students. The application deadline for Winter 2017 has passed, but keep the course in mind for a later date if you want a great introduction to the UN system.

In the meantime, learn about the field research course taking place in Geneva during the UN Council on Human Rights session in June, and some of the many ways you can be a UN volunteer.

A woman stands beside a brick wall with a large English-Thai bilingual sign that says “United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.”

Mehr Singh outside the UN office where she interned in Bangkok.

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