Not So Idle: An Internship in New York
Rhianna Ilube (2012) recently completed a four-month internship at UNICEF in New York, funded by the College’s Idle Scholarship. She took a trip back to Pembroke last week to talk about her experiences.
Could you start by telling us a bit about your internship?
Every year Pembroke sends one student to New York to work at the UN for four months. It’s in partnership with Occidental College, a university in LA, which sends one student every year to Pembroke, so it’s a university exchange but also an internship programme. From September to December you intern at a UN agency, with classes every lunchtime, homework and project work. It was really intense. I was working with fourteen Occidental students. They were still at university, so their homework counted towards their grades, whereas I’d already graduated from Cambridge. For me it was more about the internship, to make sure I got the most out of that.
For one of our classes, we had to split into two groups and produce a report for a UN agency. The agency this year was UNICEF and I was the intern at UNICEF, so I became the coordinator of the report. It was quite draining; I was running a group of seven people who were also doing full time jobs at other UN agencies alongside homework. In the end I think we did a really good job. It was a lot like doing a dissertation, which was great for me because I hadn’t done a dissertation at university.
What made you want to get involved in this programme?
I knew about the Idle Scholarship since my first year, and I really wanted to try living in New York as well. After graduating you get to go and work straight away in a completely new environment, making new friends in one of the most exciting cities in the world. By the end of third year I was getting so frustrated with studying, reading about issues in heavily academic language and never seeing it up close, so I enjoyed being closer to international politics by being at the UN headquarters. I really value learning through experiences. I went from sitting in the library every day to everything being really hands-on. Even the task force report we did as a group – we were learning through interviews and conversations and research. It was a lot more practical learning, which for me was a nice change from Cambridge.
What kind of work was involved in creating the report?
The project was about how UNICEF can best engage young people with its seventeen Sustainable Development goals, which all world leaders came together and agreed to achieve – thing like ending poverty, ending gender discrimination and teaching kids about their human rights. We interviewed a lot of young people who are already really active politically, to try and understand what drives them, what challenges they face as young people, and what ways they think would be best to try and reach out to other young people. For example, I interviewed a fifteen-year-old boy who is a climate change activist and also a hip-hop dancer and a rapper. He raps about climate change and tries to inspire groups around the world to set up youth crews where they can come together and make music, and also go out into communities and make small steps for climate change. Talking to him was really inspiring. He’s only fifteen, he still goes to school, but he was telling me about oil and gas companies having sent him death threats at his home, because he was fighting against fracking in his community. I also met a 13 year old girl from Indonesia who set up an anti-trafficking charity in her community after finding out that girls were being trafficked in her area. So we interviewed a lot of young people and also lots of educational experts and teachers, people who work with young people, to understand how we can take some of their techniques and reach out to young people. The UN draws a lot of people from all over the world so we were able to make the most of that and interview people from Sierra Leone and other countries, as well as interviewed people in India and other places over Skype.
The toughest part was putting the report together afterwards. We had different case studies of child rights learning, which we split into high, middle and low income and a refugee section, dividing the different research projects between us. But when it came to editing, when everyone’s disparate pieces came together, it was a lot of work in the end to make it sound like one long report written by one voice and with a clear narrative. I think we managed it, but it was hard; there were many stressful points! We did the report in our evenings and weekends, because everyone had different jobs during the day. But it felt like a real achievement; we got to present it to UNICEF and about fifty people came to watch our presentation, including people we’d interviewed, lots of UNICEF staff and the other students. I felt really proud. I liked having a climax to the project where we could present it and see it through to the end.
Were there any particularly memorable experiences from your time there?
The Sustainable Development Summit was really memorable because every single world leader came to New York for the weekend – the Pope was there, all these major activists, and leaders throughout global society came together to sign the document. The night before, there was a huge rally in New York just outside the UN, and there were thousands of people there. That was where I saw the kid performing hip hop, and there were two girls who read out the Girl Declaration, this really beautiful poem about why girls need to have rights and be heard… And it really felt like it was once-in-a-lifetime. When you’re there, with thousands of other people, you just feel this kind of energy, and it’s a very emotional experience.
I also went to an event organised by the UN High Commission for Refugees, which it was about statelessness. There are ten million stateless people in the world who don’t have proof of their existence, which makes it difficult for them to work or get healthcare or anything. A stateless boy came to speak at the meeting; he was 21, he’d come to Georgia with his parents and didn’t have any papers, so he had no proof of who he is… In Cambridge I was always interested in statelessness but more academically, more the idea that people can be stateless, so it was very powerful for me to hear him talking about statelessness, as well as the fact that he was my age and I got to meet him afterwards. Seeing him speak was very moving. It was really nice to have this person brought to the table to talk, and it stuck in my mind, that event.
How did you find the experience of studying at Pembroke?
In general, I loved it. Coming back, I realised how beautiful this place is to have studied. In a way I feel like Pembroke will always be here for me; I feel very comfortable here. I made really good friends, who I’m sure I’ll be friends with forever, and I’ve met incredible people. I enjoyed studying PPS [Politics, Psychology and Sociology; now HSPS] because it opened my mind to places in the world that I’d never studied before. I was able to study the politics of India, of the Middle East, of the Congo, and learning about the history of all these different places was probably the best thing for me about PPS.
But in America, I was witnessing all these different forms of learning – practical experience, doing projects together, having guest speakers… I just felt like an essay machine in Cambridge, I was able to turn around one and a half essays a week, and by the end I think I was feeling frustrated with that. I think there could be scope to have different forms of learning, different ways of learning about these issues.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since going to America is diversity, and I know there’s been lots going on at Pembroke about this at the moment – the PemWomen@30 project and so on – but in America, the students nationwide were holding huge protests for diversity while I was there. At Harvard, Yale, Occidental, there were huge sit-ins and activists arguing for more diversity on campus. And I feel like Pembroke could maybe do with some of this as well, because the issues they were discussing are very relevant to College life in terms of lack of diversity in the student population. It was impressive to see these students being so active in the US, with their understanding of who was running their institutions, knowing exactly who was on their board of trustees and how it all breaks down… It made me realise that I don’t even know who the Chancellor of Cambridge University is! It all feels less transparent here. So I think I would encourage students to find out more about who is running the university, and demand that they engage more with students about how they are actively promoting diversity and other issues on campus. I love Pembroke so much but there are many things that I think could be changed.
What are you planning to do next?
I came back a month ago now so I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next. I’m starting a job next week at Restless Development, which is a youth-led organisation in London. They have projects in countries across the world, so that’ll be interesting. I’m going to be doing a creative writing class as well. My boyfriend and I are also launching a website together, which is about helping people to explore the world through fiction – you’ll be able to click into different countries or different continents and see what has been written about those places. I feel like so much literature is still very western-focused, even when they’re talking about different places. It would be really good to have a resource for people who want to expand their reading. Hopefully I’ll be able to balance all this!
For the Idle Scholarship, I would say, don’t doubt yourself. If you’re even vaguely interested in doing it, just apply. It’s open to people of any subject and any experiences, and it’s such an incredible opportunity. I would advise people to try and get used to being independent – if you do go to New York, you are suddenly placed without contacts in a new city, which can be exhausting and quite emotionally draining. But if you’re able to enjoy your own company and feel comfortable exploring, going out of your comfort zone and talking to people, New York is actually very friendly, and people are willing to talk and tell you their stories. Often, in the internship, your team will be very busy and you need to be able to manage your own time, and not need to be doing structured work all the time. But basically, just apply – you’ve got nothing to lose!
Rhianna’s new website, OurStories, currently has a beta address here.
You can view the report which Rhianna coordinated for UNICEF here.