Interning at the UN: Highlights from the MGA students

Author: Anna Romandash

Three MGA International Peace Studies students interned with the UN New York last semester. Eunhye Lee (MGA '23), Sarah Nanjala (MGA '22), and Tinaishe Maramba (MGA '22) worked with different agencies focusing on peacebuilding, refugee rights, genocide prevention and migration. They shared their insights and advice on how to navigate the complicated UN system and how to benefit the most from this experience. 

What did you do on your internship?

Eunhye: I was with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and there, I supported the agency’s participation in relevant bilateral fora in New York, which also included drafting briefs, policy papers, talking points and strategic notes. I conducted UN-wide consultations on the UNHCR’s youth agenda and supported the design and execution of the 2022 World Refugee Day Week programming which included collaboration with the civil society, UN secretariat and member states.

Sarah: I was with the Peacebuilding Commission at the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. I was providing analytical assistance in political accompaniment projects in countries such as South Sudan, the Pacific Islands, Colombia, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin. I drafted briefing and concept notes and convened meetings to develop policy and advocacy strategies against risk factors such as climate change, political instabilities, youth unemployment, global pandemics, weak government institutions, transhumance conflicts and food insecurities. I was also involved in social media management and communication on signature events and meetings, including the High-Level Ambassadorial Meeting on Financing for Peacebuilding. 

Tinaishe: I interned with the United Nations Office on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) and the Responsibility to Protect as a Political Affairs Intern and with the International Organization for Migration Office (IOM) to the United Nations as the UN Network on Migration Secretariat Intern. In UN OSAPG, my duties as a political affairs intern were to assist political officers with day-to-day tasks in the political mission. A typical day would involve following political developments in conflict prone countries that fall under the office’s framework of analysis. 

At the IOM, I worked on preparing for the first-ever International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), which is the primary intergovernmental global platform to discuss and share progress on the implementation of all aspects of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM). The highlight of my internship was serving as secretary during the negotiations for the IMRF Progress Declaration. 

What challenged and taught you the most during this experience?

Eunhye: It was challenging to navigate the UN system as it is so vast.  I had to learn to prioritize which departments at the UN and which messaging were relevant to UNHCR. 

Sarah: Among my greatest learning moments was getting to understand how the UN works from the perspective of the secretariat level, including how policies and resolutions are agreed upon and their impact on the ground. I also came to understand the relationship between climate change and fragility and see how vulnerable a lot of countries, particularly in the global south, are to climate change-related conflict and how the issue is not being taken seriously as it should be.
My biggest challenge during the internship was how the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the workplace and made it difficult for personal connections and networking.

Tinaishe: Working with the UNOSPG was one of the most emotionally challenging experiences I have had. The office tracks and documents atrocities around the world and deals with a lot of sensitive material. What was most frustrating was the diplomatic nature of the mission, which meant that, in most cases, we were not really speaking out against atrocities being committed or calling out people but engaging in the slow and steady process of quiet diplomacy. I was also disturbed by the images and messages we would receive on our social media platforms from people in countries where atrocities were being committed, who probably thought we had the power to help them. 

The key takeaway from these experiences was discovering how the UN system is all about governments. As someone who worked with the UN in the past in the field in a developing country, I had never realized how much power governments have in setting the agenda of the organization. The UN in New York is very much a political show, where governments articulate their interests and run the show. Being present in the negotiations also gave me shocking insights into the thinking of most governments around issues of international migration. All this helped answer many frustrating questions I had about the UN system and the challenges the international system is facing in general. 

What advice do you have for students who want to intern with the UN?

Eunhye: Be aware of the application timeline and fill them out in advance. Sometimes they get back to you after many months as open positions on the website can be an ongoing posting. Know that the system is wide and vast. It’s okay not to understand or know the whole system during your time there. 

Being a student in the UN system is a unique way to see the power and limitations of the system. Take the opportunity to continue to reflect on your own positionality. It’s helpful to be clear on why you are wanting this experience at the UN depending on your past experiences, current context and what you are trying to get out of the experience.

Sarah: Working at the UN is a great opportunity; however, one needs to keep an open mind in not only seeing the incredibly good work that the entity does but also being aware of its limitations, including challenges of bureaucracy and inflexibility. Having this mentality beforehand can help you find ways, despite its highly political nature, to improve how things are done at the UN.

Tinaishe: If you are keen on directly taking part in policymaking and learning more about peace in the context of international relations, then the UN is the right place for you. The experience was very much an eye opening. Additionally, the UN is an incredible networking space. I interacted with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. I brushed shoulders with the Under-secretaries general, directors of UN entities, civil society groups, and not to mention senior diplomats and government officials from all over the world. The connections and skills I gained from this experience are priceless and I am forever grateful.

How is your internship going to help you in your future path?

Eunhye: It gave me a deeper understanding of how the UN system works and the process of effective high-level political advocacy. I worked with diverse people from different cultures and learned how to approach difficult conversations such as race and power in that environment. 

Sarah: My internship experience has solidified my interest in the connections between peace and development, which I hope to explore in my next career steps. In addition to the technical skills I gained, I was also able to form connections within the UN System and beyond which will be critical when scouting for opportunities.  

Tinaishe: The internship solidified my interest in the UN system and particularly the field of international migration. I had the opportunity to be close to what I had considered my dream job for the longest time and directly contribute to international policy making. This has helped reinforce my confidence in my career choices and passions. Moreover, the trail of UN experience will also be beneficial in future pursuits of UN related opportunities.