Cristina Gerlach, former Team Assistant Special Events and Advocacy, UNHQ

United Nations Headquarters, NYC

I believe that every skill acquired, no matter the job… is a valuable skill, because all of them will teach you a little more about yourself; about which are your strengths, which are your best qualities, and most importantly, which are your weak areas that need improvement and dedication.

Name: Cristina Gerlach Current Position: Casual Bartender
Main country of residence: Australia/United States of America Former Position: Team Assistant Special Events and Advocacy, Outreach Division UNHQ
Qualifications (and University): Master of Development Studies (The University of Sydney); Bachelor of Arts in Media and Cultural Studies (New School University)
Years of experience (overall): 5
LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/cristina-gerlach/15/a11/4b1
Languages (and level of fluency): Spanish (native), English (fluent)

 

What is the nature of the organisation that you currently work for?

I am currently on a sabbatical year after finishing my Development Studies Master degree at The University of Sydney. My last job was at the Outreach Division of the Department of Public Information at the United Nations. The UN is an international organisation formed by 6 different organs. The department in which I was working was under the Secretariat, and all staff are international civil servants paid by the Member States of the organisation.

When did you first start working in international development?

I started in 2004 when I volunteered for Peace Child International UK, a charitable organisation based in the UK dedicated to youth-led development, sustainability, and the achievement of the 2015 MDGs.  It has ECOSOC status at the United Nations for empowering the energy, creativity, skills and idealism of youth to solve the world’s most pressing problems. They do training courses, publications, and the World Youth Congress series.

What was your first international development role?

I was a volunteer intern. I was initially in change of a research project about youth development involvement in organisations around the UK, and eventually I became part of the organising team for the 2005 World Youth Congress in Scotland. The NGO that I was volunteering for, Peace Child International, takes on an average of 10 interns per year.

How did you obtain your first development/not-for-profit role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?

I obtained my first role through my connections. It is one of those stories of someone saying “I know someone who runs an NGO which does work that you might be interested in”. That led me to become an intern for Peace Child, and from there on I continued weaving my way around through connections. Even 5 years later, when I started working as a public assistant at the United Nations Headquarters, I kept those contacts fresh and I made sure to stay informed and in the loop of what were people doing and where they were working. This was mainly done though making sure I stayed connected on Facebook and via email, which many times led to opportunities to volunteer for different projects.

If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferable.

My first job while in university was at the Office of Admissions of my College; I was an office assistant and a tour guide for prospective students. During those years I developed my admin skills and most importantly my people skills, which eventually led me straight into wanting to be in the development field.

After graduating from my BA I worked several casual jobs, in areas from retail to film . I eventually got a job as a public assistant for the Department of Public Information at the United Nations Headquarters, which mainly meant being a tour guide for the UN. In total I worked for 3 years at the UNHQ, 2 of the years as a public assistant and then later as a team assistant for the Special Events and Advocacy department. I believe that every skill acquired, no matter the job (and believe me, I am now working as a bartender) is a valuable skill, because all of them will teach you a little more about yourself; about which are your strengths, which are your best qualities, and most importantly, which are your weak areas that need improvement and dedication.

I went from volunteering at a youth-led development NGO, to being an administration assistant, to film intern, to retail sales person, to public assistant at the UN, and now I am in the hospitality field for a bit. We all have our different and interesting journeys, and no matter where they start or where they head you to, they always provide you with experience that can be used in the field of development.

Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role? 

I spent one full year volunteering in England, where the headquarters for the Peace Child International office were. During that year I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland and Austria for field projects. Eventually, I had the opportunity through Peace Child to travel to Istanbul to be part of the organising team of the 2010 Youth Congress in Istanbul. What I appreciated the most in being out in the field (even when is not the kind of ‘field’ that you think of when talking about development) is that you are exposed to many different settings, opinions, and backgrounds, all of which help you shape into a bit of a different person.

Do you consider field experience important in obtaining your first development role?

Yes!!!!! But I am also aware that is not always as easy as a blink of an eye to obtain field experience. My main advice is to put yourself outside of your comfort zone; do activities with different groups of people and join local organisations or groups that do something completely other than what you are used to. Because, let’s be honest, “the field” means what is beyond where you are, and more hands-on; these two characteristics can be frightening, but extremely rewarding at the same time.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

I believe that networking is the key to every job. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that if you don’t know people you won’t get a job, but most of the time it is personal experience that will impress an employer. Networking starts in small places such as local community events and online forums, and it moves to work colleagues and former employers. In my opinion the only way to keep building your portfolio and keep expanding your horizons is by working on your networking skills.

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

A huge advantage is that I know that the work I did, and the work that I’m aiming to do in the future, is something that can also reward others. And I mean this not in a ‘helping those in need’ sense, but as ‘I am part of something that can really improve the society in which I live’.

The disadvantages of this work are that we are still a bit misunderstood in the working field, and people tend to think of us as idealistic dreamers without really stopping to understand our work. Also, a very heartbreaking disadvantage is that many times we will have to fight against the current in order to make things happen, and many times we will be disappointed by how many entities out there are using the title of ‘development’. Nevertheless, I feel that the advantages will always have much more weight that the disadvantages.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

The first thing is, and no matter how corny it sounds, to have patience. The development world can be slow at times, and very fast-paced in other ways. In both cases we will find ourselves either being frustrated, tired or disappointed, but often over-excited at the same time. In all these cases we need to take some time and remind ourselves that we have chosen a very challenging path, but at the end it is all worth it. Patience is also needed when dealing with such a broad field of people; we deal with everyone from development workers, to administrators involved in projects, to donors and partners. They all come from different backgrounds, and most of the time it will take them a while to get on the same page in order to make a project a successful one. So once again: be patient with everyone that you encounter during your career, and remember that we all need a net of connections from many different fields to have successful results.

Image credit: By Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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