UN Intern Reflection: Grace Gott, UNA-USA Fellow

Grace Gott serves as Public Information Intern in the office of the UN secretariat that works with conflict-related sexual violence in New York, NY. Grace is supported by a grant from the UNA-USA Fellowship Initiative.


Grace Gott

In the summer of 2022, I was fortunate enough to have been able to intern at the US Embassy in Bangkok in American Citizen Services. This internship was one of those moments where if you could go back and tell your 8-year-old self all of the amazing things you witnessed and participated in, they wouldn’t believe how exciting life would be. Things as little as walking into the Embassy or getting coffee with my co-workers made my heart jump with excitement about the future.

 When it came time to apply for internships for the following summer, I wanted to explore an entity whose objectives were solely on human rights and humanitarian assistance without any of the political objectives that might have been present in the US Government. This led me to apply for my current role with the office of the UN secretariat that works with conflict-related sexual violence. 

When I first received the offer for my position, I knew this was an opportunity I could not turn down. However, at this point in time, I had already signed a lease in my college town and was enrolled in in-person classes for the next semester. Therefore, for the 6-month internship, I would complete the first few months virtually until I graduated and then head to New York to complete my last few months in person, with one week of visiting New York at the UN General Assembly.

UN General Assembly

Working at the UN General Assembly was one of those moments similar to working in an embassy, where I wish I could have told my 8-year-old self about it.  Every person walking the streets had lanyards and pins that showed off different countries or sustainable development goals. There was a feeling in the air that something important was going on.

Throughout my years of involvement in international relations I had watched the events of UN General Assembly as all of the leaders of the world sit in the same room and address each other. However, what I hadn’t fully grasped was the comprehensive involvement of every entity within the UN and worldwide. Nearly every office at the UN and NGOs from around the world are involved in side events and high-level bi-lateral or multi-lateral meetings. As a result, a significant portion of my week was devoted to planning a high-level side event focused on discussions regarding holistic justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence.

Although UN General Assembly is a time dedicated for official discussions for the UN and Member states, as an intern there was a lot of room for involvement. To begin with, everyone was looking for help. With a flurry of people filling the UN secretariat building and a whole cafe that is only open this one week of the year, finding my office for the first time felt like a maze. When I arrived to the floor that my office was located in, I asked the first person I saw if I was in the correct space as I was early and there were not many people present yet. Not only did she provide me with the information that I was looking for, but she also asked me if I was available to help their office the next day. 

Furthermore, I took every opportunity that I could to meet new people, which included asking to join workers at lunch in the cafeteria and hear about their experiences. This gave me the opportunity to learn about different offices and routes to the UN. The first day that I did this I sat down with several members of the UN Department of Safety and Security, and the next day I met someone that worked in the UN Library. When I think of the UN and the human rights work that they do, these roles are not the first roles that I think of but they are equally as important as the political and professional officers that I work with.  Sitting down and speaking with these persons gave me a new appreciation for their work.

Lastly, I was able to take advantage of the UNGA guide which was posted online. While some side events were high level and not open to the public, many NGOs had eventsaimed at engaging the public. For example, one evening several religious based organizations including World Vision, World Church Service, and Bread for the World gathered in a church to share their missions and to pray for each other and the leaders of the world. This event was not as prestigious as some of the other meetings I attended this week but was by far the most impactful. After the event, we went as a group to a local restaurant and shared a meal together. 

Several of these individuals held prominent positions within their organizations, addressing issues that aligned with my interests. They possessed valuable knowledge that could guide me in my studies and thesis research.

I left my week at the UN with a sense of excitement and several key takeaways:

Change happens in the midst of chaos: Even though there were several instances where things did not go as planned, UN General Assembly is a week dedicated to outlining the efforts made throughout the world to address important humanitarian crises. The solidarity of organizations and the importance of specific concerns is put on display and change is made.

Diversity in actors and goals is essential: Although it is important to have multiple entities working towards the same goal, different approaches and perspectives can help the same goal become achieved. For example the work of the World Health Organization is to provide healthcare while the work of the World Bank is to provide economic equality. These goals are different, but are both needed for holistic justice of survivors. Neither goal can be sidelined.

Good intentions are not enough: One of the most important aspect of UNGA is to provide verified and informed information to NGOs and governments. Although aid in any capacity is always welcome, informed decisions based on the needs of a situation is more impactful.

Daily Internship experience

After UN General Assembly I returned to my University where I spent my days interning at the UN and I spent my nights taking classes and doing schoolwork. Much of the work that I do as an intern is administrative and internal. Several of my recurring tasks consist of preparing an internal report twice a week to send to the colleagues to the office that outline sexual violence in the media, particularly in the countries within our mandate; preparing readouts for relevant stakeholder and security council meetings; and preparing media messages for online posting and interview preparations. Although this is work that I have personally learned a lot from, the beauty of being at the UN is the relationships that I have made with my office and the chance to learn from the careers of those that I work with.

It is not just the narratives of my coworkers that are inspiring; their demeanor is equally uplifting. Every individual I’ve encountered at the UN embodies an exceptional work ethic, making them some of the most dedicated individuals I’ve ever encountered. The responsibilities faced by UN workers are demanding and come with significant pressure. There are many times that persons in my office are quite literally running through the office, in a rush to reach their next meeting or complete their next task. This is where I learned an important lesson in my job: attention to detail and group feedback is not a matter of personal preference.

There are times throughout my work as an intern that I make mistakes that are seemingly small to me but that are greatly upsetting to those whom I work with. At first these occurrences were frustrating to me, but as political tension grew in the internation system, I saw firsthand the way that small details impacted the work of the UN. In an address by the secretary-general there was one small phrase that he used that initiated a campaign to call for his resignation. A part of a speech that I would have considered to be nothing more than a small detail was much more important than I had imagined. It’s crucial to highlight that the intricate details of the UN can have tangible, everyday impacts on the lives and well-being of people and communities worldwide.

Despite the intense work ethic of those within the UN system, there is little job security in UN jobs. Every contract within in the UN only lasts one year and is entirely dependant on available funding. Individuals can work incredibly hard and still find themselves without a position in a year if their office loses funding. Therefore, while I came to the UN to find an entity that is unconcerned with political objectives, I learned that domestic politics will always be important. 

While the primary objective of many UN entities may be humanitarian assistance rather than governance, securing funding requires the organization to remain cognizant of political dynamics and governmental perspectives. Even if a state lacks sufficient rule of law and human rights mechanisms, the UN cannot simply condemn such a nation, but must adhere to their systems and adknowledge the relationships that they have with other nations in the region. Political motivations are always going to be present in any capacity of a human rights career.

In addition to responding to the political goals of each nation, my work at the UN has shown me the need to respond to political changes within each nation. Throughout my 6-month internship, I saw the effects of political changes throughout the world, including the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers in African countries such as Mali, and the impact of elections such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though my office may not directly be involved with these affairs, our work and our is very much affected. With new community leaders, our office must re-engage with local authorities. In the same way, as new leaders transition into the country’s political sphere, or international entities transition out of the political sphere, communities are left with an inactive government and rule of law is often abandoned, leaving gaps in services, prevention and reporting that need to be filled in. 

UNA-USA Fellowship

While the work conducted online was fulfilling to a certain extent, a significant portion of my knowledge would have been lacking without the opportunity for in-person conversations and meetings. I could not have afforded to complete my internship in person if it were not for the assistance of the UNA-USA Fellowship program, and I cannot thank them enough. Not only has UNA-USA provided me with material assistance, but it has been exciting to be a part of their programs and networks. For example, within the first week of arriving in-person, UNA-USA connected me with one of the five US Ambassadors to the UN, Christopher Lu, who deals with budgeting within the UN.

Ambassador Lu played a significant role in setting up the UNA-USA fellowship program and therefore wanted to personally meet with some of its recipients. His story itself is inspiring as he has worked a variety of different positions, many of which he had little knowledge of before entering the role. For example, Ambassador Lu is the only US Ambassador to have not previously worked overseas. In addition, Ambassador Lu has held previous roles in the U.S. Department of Labor and in fields of artificial intelligence. Despite the unexpected trajectory of his career, I gleaned from him the valuable lesson that one can acquire knowledge and expertise through on-the-go learning. You do not have to know everything about a position at the start to do a good job. Furthermore, it is his outside perspective that has allowed him to find innovative solutions to his current work, including the funding for the UNA-USA fellowship. He is a true display of the idea that no skill learned will ever go to waste.

Every part of this fellowship has been abundant with opportunities to grow and learn. UNA-USA has been such a blessing to be a part of.