Making my way into the UN, step by step

First, I was an intern in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, then, a consultant for the UN Agency for Refugees, and now, I am an officer within the International Labor Organization (ILO). Up to date, I was looking at these 3 contracts as separate entities, without linkages, because gosh there has been several years and many, many other adventures in between each one. But today I am looking at this as a whole cycle, an evolving trajectory, and it feels so good.

My first experience with the UN was actually 9 years ago, as a non paid intern for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. I was an MA student in International and European Law at the University of Geneva, training for the Nec marathon and ready to do everything possible to enrich my twenties, but also my curriculum. I wanted to secure a career in international organizations and compensate the negative perceptions of my disability by unique, numerous and impressive experiences.

I grew up being convinced that in order to find the type of jobs I wanted, I would need to do ten times more things than others, to prove future employers that my disability would not prevent me from being as competent as others.

Back then, I hadn’t understood that my ability to perform well would not depend on me, but mainly on external parameters such as accessibility of application processes, attitudes, the provision of reasonable adjustments and mentorship.

In other words, I was feeding the super hero phenomenon, an approach adopted by the society to highlight some of the things done by persons with disabilities. Now, I am combating this approach because I have understood it is causing harm. But maybe this should be the topic of another blog.

So, I was among the 20ish students having the opportunity to intern each year with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and I had first hand exposure with the Human Rights Council.

For us, the interns, it was somehow crazy to be around when so large scale international meetings involving all member states were taking place. And we were secretly hoping to be recontacted for a real position in the future. But no matter if it would happen or not, and most likely not based on the statistics, we wanted to make the best of this experience and not loose any single crumb of it.

One day, we heard that Kofi Annan. was going to come to the Palais des Nations for a conference and we were so excited! After the conference, I would have liked to queue up with the tens of people waiting for him to sign his book for them… But it would not have been so meaningful as I can only read books in digital formats, via a screen reader or a recorded version. So maybe I should have asked him to sign the assistive device through which I was accessing digital books, gosh, what would have been his reaction!

There were also so many topics that were concerning all the interns and not only myself. For instance, the internship was not paid and I knew that some interns had been advocating for a change. And this reminds me of a behind-the-scenes anecdote, I remember that there was a Facebook group to know in which conference room, event date and time there would be free food in the Palias des Nations, in some official events. We would never miss any single chance to grab a sandwich for free. Afterwards, we were laughing at ourselves and trying to still get the best of it.

Another day, we had the opportunity to meet Navi Pillay, the Commissionner for Human Rights herself, and to get a picture with her.

My second UN experience was for the UN Agency for Refugees, in their International Protection Division. I was back from a 6 months mission in Scotland while the pandemic was raging, I had decided to start some freelance work. My clients would be international NGOs and UN Agencies. In this way, I could be the owner of my employability, I could generate tailor-made opportunities while keeping my independance and autonomy. This would be done through proposing counciling services based on my skills, principles and knoledge. And guess who was my first client! The UN Agency for Refugees.

I will never, ever forget the moment were I got this call, telling I was selected for the consultancy. I can tell it was a Thursday at around 4:30 PM and I was walking with my friend Marine in Mont-Blanc street, in Geneva. I can’t find the words to express how amazing this experience was, and all the things I learnt and gained across this mission. It was simply perfect, if we consider I forgot the full month of silence after this call, just because HR would take ages to provide me with an official offer.

For confidentiality purposes I won’t give too much details about the mission but I was responsable for supporting the Agency with better inclusion of persons with disabilities living in forced displacement situations.

After this amazing opportunity, I collaborated for one year with a global NGO, implementing a project funded by UNICEF. So I worked hand by hand with UNICEF for the time being but it was as partner and not as my direct employer.

And very recently, when I was not expecting to work for the UN so soon, because in between, my career kept developing and I was focused in so many other projects, life made me one more gift! the ILO, an agency I had never collaborated with before opened a new door for me.

When I got the call to know I was going to recieve an official appointment letter, I also remember exactly what I was doing. To be honest, my reaction was much more contained and framed than with UNHCR, probably because my brain has normalized a bit what is happening. Yet, I was super happy and I am very impatient to start.

So, this new step with the ILO will be my first contract as an internal UN staff. More precisely, I will be working for the Gendar, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion branch.

I will be one of those agents that as an intern, I was wondering how to approach. Back then, I knew it could be appreciated to pop at their office or catch them at the coffee machine, and ask them if they needed any support with anything, hoping that they would have an assignment for me, other than preparing minutes or briefs, in order to learn knew things and hopefully be noticed a little bit… in case there’s a new position opening in the near future. But I was not offering them my immediate support as much as I wanted, not only because I was a bit shy or because my English was not great back then, but mainly because being visually impaired, I was under the feeling that most of the staff would not know which task I could perform. I was the first intern with a visual disability and it was not easy every day. So, what would happen if, after managing to be untrusted with a task, I would not be able to perform it properly… I was terrified.

A consequence could be that they never contract other interns with disabilities… Yes, I was not only carrying what was under my control, but also a whole bench of additional parameters made of « what if », « what if », « what if ».

By Ludovic Courtès – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I recall of one of my first days as an intern, I remember having spent at least 30 minutes to find a staff I was supposed to hep with something because it was in the middle of a Human Rights Council session with 500 people around: diplomats, civil society representatives, UN staff, I didn’t even know where were the other interns. The staff I was supposed to find never came to me spontaneously and I had to ask lots of different people to try to locate her and get some support.

Since this day, almost 10 years passed by and I have grown so much. I still have the same needs, requirements and preferences, but maybe not the same fears and lack of experience. I am still very demanding with myself but much more pacified. I have discovered that when I was in an enabling and inclusive environment, I could accomplish so much. And so, if I am not in such an environment, which happened, and will happen again, I should be easy going and accept the situation.

Like an athlete training for an important tournament, I started preparing myself for this new position and realize how well I will be surounded for this next step.

Indeed, a couple of weeks before starting my position with the ILO, I went for an orientation session with a friend, as many visually impaired people probably do when they migrate towards a new environment, provided they have somebody to support with this. Yes, Geneva is already familiar to me but for each new way, I need to learn the path by heart, to know which bus to take, from where, how to find the stop, which connection is the simplest, and after I get off, should I turn left, right, etc.

Amazingly, I have the luxury of having a friend who offered to support with this critical aspect, her name is Nathalie but we are both refered to as the Walkyries. If you wonder why we are referenced across these maidens from the Nordic Mythology who served the god Odin on battlefields, just further investigate and you will understand, because it is exactly us.

To be more accurate, with her, when I was studying in Geneva, we would go for randum activities like… a 30 k run, a 10 hours tandem ride, a trek in the Suisse mountains, and this would be always balanced with fondues, festivals, and meeting new people.

Now, I have to admit, work has taken the lead over many of this and the immediate priorities require most of my energy. After being familiar with the way to get to the ILO, I will need to orient myself inside the 10 floors building. The first days of such adventures are always so exosting and I would like to take it easy. My manager has already offered to provide me with an orientation session on the first day, and I am sure my guide dog will also appreciate this.

And, as long as my Walkyrie will be around, everything should be all right.

A non paid, intern, then, an external task force and now, a technical officer, can’t wait to see what will come next…

If you also want to know what will come next, you are welcome to subscribe to my news letter. So you will be notified as soon as I post a new article online. If you enjoyed reading this blog, or want to share some of your experiences that after being put side by side, have formed a trajectory, you are welcome to leave a comment, I am always pleased to read and answer you… You can also share this article with your friends whom it may interest.

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Nathalie - 08/08/2022

I have goosebumps ❣️
I wish you Full success in your new challenge

    Güler Koca - 08/09/2022

    Feeling blessed for having you on board for this adventure.

    Thank you Walkyrie.

Cindy - 08/09/2022

Great news Guler! So happy to know you are fulfilling your purpose. So proud of you and thank you for this journey… very encouraging.
Greetings from Costa Rica my friend.

    Güler Koca - 08/09/2022

    Thank you Cindy, I thought it was good to write this article (to show the power of trajectories and cycles, but also for those who want to work at the UN as I am often asked how to get there…


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