In late May of 2021, I sat down (virtually) with Huiyong Kim, George Mason Alumni and Administrative Assistant at the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD), to discuss his career journey since graduating from Mason in 2018. We talked about everything, from internships and international organizations to the trials and tribulations of being an undergraduate student. While graduating and entering the “real world” is often a scary time for most students, especially now due to uncertainties exacerbated by COVID-19 and a capricious job market, Huiyong’s words about finding a great career after college put my anxieties at ease, and I hope they do the same for you.
Janis Woodward: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and describe what your journey has been like from being a Global Affairs student at George Mason to where you are right now?
Huiyong Kim: I got into the Mason Korea program in 2016 as a transfer student. I was a sophomore when I got into the program, and I graduated in December 2018 with a concentration in Global Governance. In between that period, I did a lot of internships related to international organizations because I have always been interested in that area. I worked with professors at Mason Korea as a research assistant and project assistant to concentrate my area of expertise and experiences so that they were related to research and international organizations.
In the summer of 2017, I got an internship where I work right now, at the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD). It was only a two-month internship, and it was my first internship at the UN, so it was very exciting. I got a lot of hands-on experience because it was a very small office. During that time, we only had six to seven staff and three to four interns, which allowed me to do more things because they were always short-handed. Compared to other UN offices, they asked us interns to do much more substantive work. Interning there really did change me and allowed me to broaden my experiences and vision of working for international organizations. I got the position that I have right now, as a team assistant, actually last April. So, it has been a little bit over one year since I’ve been working at the UNOSD.
That’s kind of the journey that I have been through since I started at George Mason University. I was actually at the Fairfax, Virginia campus for about one semester. I enjoyed staying there, and it was really nice. It was during my senior year, so I could complete my capstone project and one of the Mason required courses. What I am planning on doing in the near future is completing my master’s and building a more professional background. Then, in two or three years, I will try to aim for a higher or more substantive position at another international organization, or with the United Nations, so I can continue my career with them.
JW: You mentioned that you got an internship at the UN as an undergrad. Did you use any of the services offered at George Mason to help find this internship?
HK: Yeah, definitely. Mason Korea is in Incheon, and there are a lot of international organization offices in that area. Specifically, there are, from the top of my head, eight UN offices and agencies in this area. So, Mason students have a great advantage of getting an internship, specifically Global Affairs students. Our career development center does a very good job securing positions at those offices exclusively for our Mason Korea students. I mean, they’re not reserved, but we have a very good chance of getting them because there are only four to five universities within Incheon that compete for these internships. Normally, when you’re applying for UN or international organizations internships, you have to compete with hundreds of other students and applicants, so we have that kind of advantage.
I had a recent intern at our office who was from Mason Korea. I have other colleagues in other UN offices, who also have Mason students as their interns, and they have a very good reputation. So, in general, for UN offices in Korea and specifically, in the Incheon area, our students are quite reliable human resources *laughs.* Mason Korea does very hard work and puts a lot of effort into building networks, not only with the international organizations but with embassies, so that we have more global networks within or outside of Korea.
JW: Mason Korea sounds like it offers amazing opportunities for students after graduation.
HK: Yes, and there’s a research center, it’s called the Center for Security Policy Studies Korea, from the SCHAR School. The main body is in Fairfax, but they opened a branch at Mason Korea. CSPS Korea has really been the core of Mason Korea. It is especially a good place for Global Affairs students to grow academically and professionally. They have a lot of internships and research assistantships. I also did my research assistantship there, and I got to organize this symposium with high-level people. That’s where I learned my skills to organize events. With that experience, I got my internships not only at the UNOSD but at other organizations. So, I will say, not only Mason Korea but George Mason as a whole prepares you well before you jump into a career.
JW: Speaking of careers, you joined the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD) in 2019. What drew you to this field? How did you get to this position?
HK: When I finished my internship and undergrad studies, I got an internship at the Green Climate Fund. While I was doing my internship, I saw an opening at the UNOSD for a consultant position. The UN has this system with consultants and individual contractors. They’re not regular UN staff or employees, but they try to hire contract-based employers and consultants for a short period of time to implement around one or two specific programs. I applied, and luckily, I did get the consultancy. I think one of the major factors that helped me get the position was that I had previous experience at the office. I knew very well how the office ran and the nature of their activities and work, so I think that was an advantage I had over other applicants.
I did the consultancy for about nine months, and then luckily, there was an opening in our office as a regular UN staff, as a G-level staff. At the UN, there are two different levels: there’s a general staff level and then there’s international staff. They call it the G Staff and the P Staff, which is like the professional staff. Professional staff are very, very experienced. You need an extensive amount of experience, and it requires certain degrees. So, it’s very difficult to get the position until you’re an expert in that field. However, general staff are more involved in administrative and supportive tasks. There are certain steps that you have to go through when applying for a G-level position. There are exams that you have to take, and there is a competency-based interview. You go through this review board that certifies your background and checks to see if the things you wrote down on your resume are actually true. In that respect, it is similar to other private or public institutions.
JW: What is a typical day like working at the UNOSD, and what are some important skills you have learned from the position?
HK: Our office is a project office. We mostly try to carry out activities and events related to implementing our sustainable development goals and our 2030 Agenda. We try to localize sustainable development policies in developing countries. We do a lot of capacity development activities, knowledge sharing, and policy advisory services. That is the majority of our work. Before COVID-19, we would invite government officials and representatives to Korea and hold forums, trainings, and workshops to educate them. We provided them with frameworks and tools that would benefit their countries and help them implement sustainable development policies. During COVID-19, we try to conduct extensive policy advisory services mostly online because we are unable to have them here or cannot travel abroad. We are focusing on making a green and sustainable recovery from COVID-19 because it has been hampering our progress towards not only sustainable development, but all levels of society—in health, economics, and also the people in marginalized and vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities, women, and children, etc. We are also trying to empower their capacities to tackle the challenges they have locally and globally.
My typical day is, as you can see, I’m at home because of COVID-19. I only go to the office once or twice per week. We strictly follow the regulations put in place by the Korean government, so we’re not able to go back to our office until the government says we are back to business as usual. Normally, I will be at home, but our working hours are still the same. 9 am to 6 pm. What I do here is mostly technical support, administrative support, and then program support. So, I will write concept notes, opening remarks, and I will prepare presentation files for senior experts and the head of the office. I’m in communication with New York, the headquarters, to take care of administrative stuff like HR or budget-related issues. I also communicate with local authorities, like in Incheon City, the government of Korea, and then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Environment. Other tasks include managing the website and the interns. Our office, as I mentioned, is very small. Currently, there are only eight staff and interns present, so we all have to wear a lot of hats. So, the typical day is very very busy, and I always have a lot going on. At night, I have to catch up with my studies and my assignments or papers.
JW: It sounds like you do a lot of behind-the-scenes work at your office.
HK: What I do is not very visible, but a major skill that is required of me is the ability to write well. I have to write a lot of concept notes, speeches, and presentations. That is really a skill that I have carried with me from Mason. Mason really did prepare me to write well. Other than that, it is mostly the same with other companies or institutions. I’ve learned to be attentive to details, plan well, and other organizational skills that are common but valuable.
HK: Yes, definitely multitasking!
JW: Can you maybe talk about some of your favorite things about working with the UNOSD?
HK: My favorite thing is that I get to meet very diverse people from different countries. Since we’re dealing with developing countries, I get to meet people from countries I’ve never heard of, or I only know the names of, but never have visited or encountered people from that region or that particular country. So, it is actually very exciting. Before COVID-19, we would have 70 to 80 experts from different countries gather together, and I would get to meet them. It’s very exciting to talk to them and learn about how people from different countries have different policies, cultures, and backgrounds. This is really a core value that I’ve learned as a former Global Affairs student, to appreciate that diversity and understand the broad scheme of globalization and how the United Nations, along with other international organizations, can contribute and provide as many services and support as possible.
They are very bright experts. I mean, if it weren’t for our professional relationship, I would probably be good friends with them outside of work. They are very kind and genuine, so it is one of my favorite things about working at the UN, getting to meet those people and learn about their stories. From that aspect, I am able to learn even more because it’s not something that a university or graduate level university could teach you, but this is the experience you get from in-person communication and context. That is one of the things I enjoy.
JW: As you mentioned before, the services offered by GLOA and Mason Korea helped you find your internships. Would you say they helped you find this current position?
HK: Definitely. I think most undergraduate students may feel like they don’t have a clear idea of what they want to do after graduation, especially for Global Affairs students.
We have this myth that Global Affairs students will not get jobs after graduation, and they often end up going to graduate school or doing a whole bunch of internships and research assistantships. At Mason Korea, Global Affairs is one of the best majors for getting a job, and Global Affairs students have the highest employment rate, I would say, within the Mason Korea community. That is because of the local advantage we have, as I mentioned, we have a lot of institutions around us, where Mason students get their jobs or internships after graduation, and then a lot of our students do pursue advanced degrees overseas, mostly in Europe. They also prepare you to take the GRE to get into graduate schools in the US. In that process, Mason Korea and GMU do a very good job of providing a lot of support. The staff and the professors are very experienced, and they’re very professional. They have these amazing networks that can guide students to end up where they want to be. Also, at Mason, there is a very strong connection between the students and staff. It’s been two or three years since I graduated, but I still have a bond with them. I will visit Mason Korea once in a while to talk to the current students and professors. That bond still exists, not only for me but for other alumni as well. So, I think that network has been guiding the GLOA students in pursuing work in this field, at international organizations, NGOs, and civil societies.
JW: Speaking of the network between these international institutions, Mason Korea, and Global Affairs, I heard you were invited back to Mason as a guest speaker for the first Fairfax Mason Korea, GLOA 101 course. How did it feel to come back and speak with the GLOA students about your current work?
HK: When I was first asked by Professor Ashley and Professor Lim to be the guest speaker, initially I thought I would not be the right person to deliver the presentation. I’m just doing mostly administrative stuff at the UNOSD, and I haven’t built my career that extensively to provide a lecture to the GLOA students. That’s why, at first, I was quite nervous, but at the same time, I was quite excited to share my experiences. I heard back from two professors that the GLOA students enjoyed the lecture, which was something very rewarding to hear. I was very honored to be invited back as a speaker. It also brought back memories from when I was a student. When I was a student, we didn’t have alumni guest speakers. I also saw that students now have more opportunities to learn about their careers outside of academia, instead of learning from textbooks and professors, but from other on-the-ground sources.
If I’m ever invited again, I would definitely do it because I really enjoyed talking to the students from the Mason Korea and the Fairfax campus. We had very great discussions. If I make further advancements in my career, I would love to share my progress with them. I think of it as us growing together. I’d be growing along with them. They might think that I inspired them, but it is quite the other way around. They have inspired me from the amount of passion and excitement they had. It kind of revived my passion and excitement.
(For more information on how GLOA is taking the opportunity to further connect the Korea and Fairfax campuses, please see our recent article: Mason Global Affairs Professors in Korea and Fairfax Successfully Co-Teach Synchronous Course.)
JW: I think it would be great if you keep coming back after every major change in your career. You could come back and talk about it again with the same GLOA students. I think your experiences are very helpful to the students. I know you said they help you, but you definitely are very helpful to them, too.
I didn’t get to go to your lecture, but Professor Ashley showed me your slides. You included a quote on one of the slides that really stuck out to me. It said, “Human development is about expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live.” I thought that was a really significant quote, and I was wondering if you could talk more about this and how your office supports these kinds of values?
HK: I added that quote because human development has always been a part of human history but hasn’t really been conceptualized until recently. The concept itself has been around since Aristotle, but the actual conceptualization is very recent, since after the World Wars. That’s when people started to realize that it’s not just economic issues that people should be concerned about, but about human life itself, and we should not have policies that only enforce economic development but also human development. This is to ensure that governments can create environments where people can choose the life they want to live and make the choices they want to make. That idea really stuck out to me while preparing for my lecture and preparing for the presentation. I thought about how my office is contributing to that aspect.
We do a lot of work in the social inclusion area. A lot of the countries are very well off economically, but even within advanced countries like the US and Korea, there are still marginalized groups of people who are taken advantage of in these societies. We have these inequalities, prejudices, and biases. Our office tries to encourage governments to enforce policies that promote social inclusion, specifically in their lives, so that they’re not discriminated against at their workplace, at home, and especially during COVID-19. I mentioned this in my presentation, but ever since COVID-19, domestic violence has increased extensively.
We try to cover these areas as much as possible so that these people are not left behind in our progress towards achieving sustainable development goals. Imagine what it’s like for marginalized groups, not only in the US or Korea but countries in developing states. It’s quite hard to imagine how hard their lives can be. We cannot help everyone, every single person, but we’re trying our best and using the best of our abilities and capabilities to help governments change their policies to be more inclusive and sustainable in terms of providing support and services to people in need and people who are marginalized.
JW: I also saw in your slides that you are pursuing a master’s degree in Public Policy. What are some of your future plans and career goals?
HK: I decided to apply for a master’s degree program in Korea, where I could study and work at the same time. The reason why I am doing that is, as I mentioned, P-level staff or professional-level staff require certain degrees. I am planning on reaching that level of expertise so I can apply for that position someday. It is not going to be quick; it will take a few years until I will be able to apply, but I’m trying to prepare myself in that respect. That is why I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Public Policy at Seoul National University. I am in my second semester, so I’m almost halfway there. I’m working in the mornings and afternoon, and I am studying at night.
The reason why I decided to do my master’s in Public Policy, specifically, is that most of my work involves organizing trainings, forums, and conferences for policymakers and policy experts from overseas, not just local authorities or governments but also international governments, such as government officials and representatives from developing countries. We try to have as much diversity as possible. Since what we are trying to do is to localize sustainable development policies into their policies, I have to have some knowledge and expertise in public policy, how policies are designed, how they’re implemented, and how they’re monitored and evaluated for our office. It was a way for me to fully understand and provide as much support as possible to the people who are attending our seminars and trainings.
JW: Do you have any advice for current Global Affairs students who would like to pursue a similar career as you?
HK: I always mention two things when I’m asked to provide such advice. First, improve your writing skills. It is really, really important. Your writing skills are not only used in this area but in other places as well. International organizations do particularly require very high-level professional writing skills, so it is very helpful when you have good writing skills. You are more likely to get more opportunities, and you will get to do more substantive work outside of your contract. I was a tutor at the Writing Center, and a lot of the GLOA students did come to me and express their concerns about improving their writing skills. It is really basic, just reading more journal articles, visiting professors, and visiting the Writing Center. It’s very easy to improve, but good writing skills are at the core of working in this area.
Second, build a network! A lot of students do neglect the importance of networking, not only with other students but people they encounter in their daily lives. If a student gets to do an internship at some institution, what they normally do is say, “OK, it’s only a three to four-month internship, I’ll just do it and get it over with, and then I’ll try to do another thing.” That’s a common mistake that undergrad students tend to make, but internships are really about building good relationships and networks. It is important to leave a very good impression on the organization you intern for because you never know when new opportunities will come. If you don’t do a very good job or leave a bad impression, they may not consider you for a future position. It is one of those things that undergrad students often do.
It is also normal for undergrads to be very shy or hesitant to approach their organization first, and they think that those people are always busy and unsupportive of them, but actually, we have time to talk to our interns. We always have the willingness to provide guidance, so students should not be afraid to ask for it. It is unlikely that they will approach you first because they have other things in their hands. If you do, they will not push you away. I will always advise students to approach first, build that network, ask for information, ask for opportunities, and ask for advice. You never know how doing this can help you.
JW: That’s great advice. As an undergraduate, I definitely made some of those mistakes. I got in the internship and got out and didn’t talk to anyone. *Laughs*
HK: *Laughs* I also made my mistakes.
JW: Do you have advice for students who want to support their community, especially during crises like COVID-19, but don’t know how to start or get involved?
HK: As a student, there are limits to what you can actually do for the community in times of crisis like this, but what I have been seeing from students around me during this time is how good they are at spreading and raising awareness because they have very good communication skills. You know, social media is not only about chatting with your friends and posting about your daily lives, but it can also be used to raise awareness and show people that this is happening, and this is what’s going on, what’s really happening around the world. In that way, you can also learn from those around you. However, there are a lot of myths and conspiracies going around, but doing that research before spreading awareness could help students share correct and accurate information.
To support their community, normally I would say volunteer services, but in this time of COVID-19, I don’t know how many opportunities they would have because it’s quite dangerous and difficult to meet people and do group services and work. But I will say, students are at their best when they learn, so I think what they could do to support their communities in the longer term is to keep on studying and learning about what’s happening around the world. For Global Affairs students, especially, what they learn feels quite broad and extensive, so I would just recommend that they focus their studies on a particular field they’re interested in and broaden that specific knowledge. Then, in the longer term, they can decide or think about how they could contribute to the community. I don’t think they have to necessarily provide support right now, at this moment, but they could prepare themselves. They could learn from this experience and think, “Oh, what can I do in such crises in the future when I’m well into my professional career?”
JW: Is there any is there anything else you would like to say to the GLOA students?
HK: I would say that GLOA students are very worried about employment, especially in times like this, where employment rates and the numbers are not doing so well these days, especially around the world. There are a lot of students who change their major, thinking that Global Affairs will not help them get a job in the future and establish a sustainable living. And I would say to those students that opportunities are there, and we need more people in this area. Now, we realize how global health crises can impact our societies and the world, and we need people to tackle those challenges, but a lot of the students are interested in the private sector that would earn them good salaries.
One of the core functions of international organizations is not only providing services but there’s also research. We try to conduct and gather as much data as possible about each country. We, as international organizations, help countries that do not have the capacity to conduct research and don’t know what to do in times of crisis like this. We help them gather data and develop strategies to tackle those challenges. We help them implement policies.
For the GLOA students who are really interested in this area, I will say that the major’s projections and our prospects are not as depressing as they think. If people like me can get a job at the UN, then anybody else can. As long as they’re willing to study, learn, and do the work. It is really a matter of the amount of effort that you put into it and the amount of interest you have in this field. We are not looking for Einsteins, no we’re not looking for geniuses, but we are looking for people who can contribute and commit. Also, COVID-19 has proven that international organizations are still functional, and we still need them. People still doubt that international organizations are necessary at this time. They say that they’re useless and that the UN is not doing anything, but what we are realizing is that we need entities like this, with more functions to conduct research, raise awareness, and make local and global changes.
If you are interested in interning at the United Nations Office for Sustainable Development, please visit https://unosd.un.org/content/internships for more information.
July 26, 2021