Ask Away: 5 Questions with a U.N. Intern
We’re asking students, professionals, and language enthusiasts five questions on how languages have played a role in shaping their personal and professional success…
Meet Matthew, a French-speaking Lehigh graduate who majored in Global Studies and Journalism. He’s currently the briefings intern in the United Nations Department of Public Information’s NGO Relations office.
1. What first sparked your interest in French? When did you begin and what made you stick with it?
I started French at my extremely small high school in Ohio, where language was required for an honors diploma. Spanish and French were the only two languages offered, and after looking at those two programs and the teachers who offered them, I chose French. That kick-started my interest in the language and the culture.
I had a great French teacher all throughout my four years at high school, and I was also able to go on a school-sponsored 12-day trip to France where we started in Nice and slowly made our way up to Paris. Going on that trip in my third year of French really cemented that I wanted to continue studying French at the university level and eventually study abroad somewhere French-speaking.
2. Tell us a little about your study abroad experience in Geneva. What did you find most surprising about living overseas?
I love Geneva. The entire country of Switzerland is beautiful, and I cannot speak highly enough about the Boston University Study Abroad program that allowed me to study, live, and work there for four months.
I would say that I found two things very surprising:
First, how accepting and enthusiastic most people are to learn about your culture. I knew that I was going to go into the experience wanting to learn as much as possible about the different countries and people that I was living with and traveling to see, but most people that I came into contact with were equally as excited to learn about me, my culture, and my life. That was definitely a welcomed surprise.
Secondly, I was living in Switzerland at the beginning of 2016, right in the heart of the 2016 United States election primaries, and so many people wanted to talk about American politics and my feelings toward what was going on in the U.S. at the time. I was not expecting people halfway across the world to be so interested in our presidential race, but they definitely were, and I would say that many of them were more informed about it than many people in our own country. I think it says a lot about what an important position being president of the United States is and how many people pay attention to the politics of our nation.
3. What’s it like to complete an internship while studying abroad?
Difficult but rewarding. As you can imagine, the language barrier can be difficult at times when you’re trying to get information or attend a briefing, but all my writing and research was done in English, so in terms of my work, I didn’t have to deal with a barrier there.
Most of my colleagues would speak to me in English, but the VP of the company came to introduce himself and he asked if I spoke French. When I said “yes,” he responded with “OK, I’m going to speak to you only in French,” so that was fun. He and I never worked directly together, but it was nice to have professional French interaction while in the office like that.
Honestly, I think that working at Green Cross in Switzerland is one of the most appealing experiences on my resume. People seeing that internship know that I was able to effectively live and work in another country. Being comfortable in that kind of multicultural scenario is definitely an asset to any international organization or company. So even though it was difficult to get accustomed to a different kind of office culture, and it wasn’t always easy to know what exactly my bosses expected of me, the experience was fun and one of the best selling points from the early part of my professional career. It was actually the first internship I did that directly applied to what I wanted to do.
4. How do language and cultural skills play a part in your current and future professional plans?
Personally, I think that language and cultural skills will play a part in everyone’s professional plans these days. For a while now, the professional world has been moving toward a more connected global market. It is now extremely rare to find a profession or occupation where you will be disconnected from the outside world, let alone even work for just one company for your entire professional life. No matter where you work or what profession you have, you’re going to come into contact with people from across the globe.
Having language and cultural skills builds your global understanding and global competency. These skills allow you to be more productive with those from other countries or other cultures: Why wouldn’t you want to gain those skills? I think everyone should learn multiple languages and study abroad. I think they both should be required of students.
In terms of my career right now, I work at the United Nations, and the two working languages are English and French. So while most documents will come out in both languages, and in most meetings there will be translation, having background knowledge in both languages is extremely useful in many different ways. In addition to that, it’s another thing that can make you stand out in a crowd and could be the reason you get sent abroad over a co-worker.
5. What advice do you have for students considering a future career in diplomacy or international development and who may be thinking about starting or continuing to learn a language?
My advice is to make yourself learn or practice that language at least a few minutes each day. It is easy to forget your language skills if you aren’t using them often. Download a language learning app, listen to music, watch TV in a different language—it can be anything. Just make sure you’re working on that language at least some point during the day.
Everyone has this piece of advice, but I have found it to be so true!
Have you considered the opportunities a study abroad or international internship experience could unlock? Are you interested in a career in development, international relations, or government? Check out the many language-oriented programs (and related scholarships!) available.
Does one of the above questions speak to you? Share your answer by joining the conversation @LeadWLanguages on social media!