UNHCR intern provides first hand account of his internship.

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LONDON, July 5 (UNHCR) – Are people fully aware of a role’s requirements and challenges when applying for an internship? Given that advertisements often contain only a brief job specification, it would seem reasonable to suggest that many people apply without all the facts. This is why I have written this account, in the hope that it goes some way in providing future applicants and interested parties with a first hand description of the daily life of an External Relations intern here at UNHCR.

Firstly, and as I’m sure you can imagine, the prospect of working at UNHCR for six months was exciting. Opportunities to work for the UN are extremely limited in the UK and I jumped at the chance. The refugee agency stood out because of my interest in Middle East and African politics, and especially the human face of war. With wars in Ivory Coast and Libya raging during my spell here, it was an incredibly interesting period to work for the agency and one that would certainly test my prior knowledge.

I worked in the External Relations unit and this role interested me because I was looking for a career in communications and had some experience in the media before applying. Working in PR means that you have to consistently keep up with world events and what is being said about them, and I knew that the fluidity of world events and fast paced nature of the internship would be interesting and serve me well for the future.

The role was certainly varied. Broadly speaking, the work is split into two areas – media and parliament. With the former, we are often dealing with issues that make the front pages and my first task of the day would involve monitoring the national press for stories relevant to our work. These stories are compiled into a report which is sent within this office and to interested External Relations associates abroad. To some this can seem monotonous, but it was always nice to start the day by sitting back with a paper in one hand and coffee in the other. Media monitoring is also a key part of the PR industry and it was nice to know that I was gaining experience in this area.

With the crises in Libya and Ivory Coast consistently evolving and gaining rapid media attention, journalists would often ring me in search of interviews and information. I would duly oblige by researching information such as statistics on the numbers fleeing. When interviews were requested, I would forward them onto either our spokesman in London or to the relevant spokesperson around the world. I also had the opportunity to attend interviews and it is always nice to see a UNHCR spokesperson on screen or in print and know that I played a small part in arranging it. These journalists will often ask to be kept fully informed in the future and I would also update our media contact lists which are used to send out information to interested parties. I’m not going to lie and say that updating the latter is enthralling, but managing a rolodex is an important skill and it is nice to know that this is being honed.

I would also monitor Parliament’s activities on a daily basis. This involves reading Hansard in search of relevant statements or questions and writing a report on my findings. Hansard can be dry at times and sifting through the lengthy debates can take a while, but I feel that I gained a real understanding of what happens in Westminster and this can be vital in a range of careers. I also had the opportunity to attend Select Committee hearings and ask questions at APPG’s. It is always nice to get out of the office and these trips can offer welcome relief from your flooded email inbox; not to mention the networking opportunities that inevitably arise – the future value of which I cannot stress enough.

One of the most exciting parts of the role is social media and website management. This is the area where I had most control, for I was responsible for updating our online presence. Website management seemed complicated at first, but it is quickly learnt and I have found this a really useful skill, for employers are increasingly looking for people with knowledge in this area. On a daily basis I would put the latest news stories, pictures, videos, press releases, and events on our website and this was the best way of keeping up with the whole agency’s activities. The social media side of things was equally interesting. I must admit that I was au fait with Facebook before arriving at UNHCR, but I learnt the powerful art of Twitter from scratch. We increased our followers a lot during my time here and it is really rewarding to see people re-tweeting you and deciding to follow the agency as a result of your actions.

The final part of the External Relations intern role is event management. This was hectic during my spell here because it fell within Refugee Week. As part of the organising coalition I was involved in organising a lot of events, including the Home Secretary having tea with refugees and photographic exhibitions in the Albert Hall, Glasgow and Brussels. My role was mainly logistics, including finding appropriate locations and participants for the exhibitions. It is not always possible for people to attend events being organised, but I was able to attend many of the Refugee Week events and it was really nice to see a finished product after your hard work.

So would I recommend the internship? It is unpaid so sacrifices have to be made – living off baked beans being one – but the answer is a resounding yes. Six months is long enough to give you a real understanding of UNHCR’s work on both a global and local level. The weekly staff meetings also opened my eyes to the work of other departments in the office and helped me feel included in the UNHCR London team. It must also be said that UN internships are a rare commodity in the UK and having first hand experience of the organisation’s activities and how the system works can only be a good thing going forward.

Finally, I would highly recommend the External Relations internship because I have learnt that even the most mundane task, if in the right area, can provide you with long lasting skills. Indeed, with tasks akin to an entry level PR position on your CV – such as maintaining a rolodex, social media, event organising, and developing new external relations strategies, your CV will certainly stand out – something any worthwhile internship should provide.

By Andrew Francis in London
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