How I Stopped Trying to Reduce Disaster in my Internship

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Holly Davison, C+S ’17

I stared at the list of acronyms for twenty minutes, trying to decipher what the United Nations Development Program document in front of me was explaining. I muttered little hints to myself as I waded through the dense booklet. I thought to myself, “PDNA, okay that means…” as I found the corresponding explanation in the key. Post-disaster needs assessment.

It must have taken me two hours to comb through a 15-page document. My first day at my internship on the Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction team at the UNDP was overwhelming to say the least. And that feeling of “newness” stuck with me for weeks.

It had been more than six years since my previous first day at a job. I had worked for five and a half years at an e-commerce company, and I had only fuzzy recollections of my first day there at 22. As I was promoted over the next couple of years to the director of human resources, I grew much more accustomed to interacting with new hires than actually being a new hire myself. The culture at the company I worked for was extremely stressful, and I had a lot of responsibility in my role. However, the stress was predictable, and there was something comforting about it. I could rely on it, and I knew how to deal with it.

Transitioning from one career path to going back to graduate school and then trying to re-establish myself in another industry was terrifying. I felt enormous pressure to make the most of my internship.

Struggling to learn the acronyms was only one reminder of how little I knew of the organization. Everywhere I turned I found someone else who was far more versed in the inner workings of the UNDP and the field of climate change.

My coworkers are instrumental in getting crucial disaster risk reduction and recovery programs implemented in developing countries. These are programs that save lives, rebuild towns, and prepare residents for the worst. My colleagues consider and act upon the needs of the most vulnerable populations during disasters, particularly women. And if I weren’t already in awe of them, these experts can explain what they accomplish in four or five different languages. In my first few weeks at the UNDP, I was so worried about sounding uninformed in front of them that I barely asked them any questions. I missed so many learning opportunities.

And then one day, I realized that in order for me to add any value at all during my internship, I had to somehow stop being so intimidated by my coworkers and their knowledge.

An example of disaster risk reduction in the Philippines (Source: flickr/dfataustralianaid)

This catalyst wasn’t self-imposed, though it should have been. About a month into my internship, we had a team meeting that included about 30 people on the Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction team. Achim Steiner, the new UNDP administrator, had recently started his tenure. And the director of our team had noticed many team members were mispronouncing his name. So he started the meeting by going around the table and asking each of us to pronounce Achim Steiner in our best German accent.

My coworkers chuckled at this request and dutifully started saying his name. As they went around the table, getting close to me, I panicked and looked around for the closest exit. Finally, it was my turn and I completely butchered it several times as I was coached through the correct pronunciation.

Embarrassed, I said, “I’m so sorry, I don’t speak any German at all.” The co-lead of the team looked at me and smiled and said, “You do now.”

Those three words stuck with me. Instead of apologizing for what I didn’t know, I tried to learn more. I finally started asking my coworkers questions about their work. And I’m currently collaborating with one of my colleagues to publish his booklet on lessons learned on legal review processes for disaster risk reduction.

I’ve familiarized myself with what disaster risk reduction looks like in different countries like Armenia, Bhutan, and Vanuatu. I keep reminding myself that at some point, my coworkers, these talented experts, had to start somewhere. And that makes me feel like their level of knowledge is not unreachable, but in fact completely attainable if I get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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