Tasting a Dream – Interning at UNICEF Cambodia

1 Sep 2017

Internship experience at UNICEF Cambodia
Shruti Gogia
Shruti Gogia internship photo

Working in the field of education and the curiosity to further plummet into education policy drew me to Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The first two semesters in the school prepared me with rigorous tools to take on a challenge during the summer months of 2017. After a gruesome search for internships, one pleasant morning I heard back from UNICEF Cambodia for an interview call. Needless to say, my excitement was manifested into a fruitful interview call with the Education Officer at UNICEF Cambodia and within a week my plan for the summer was charted with an organization I had always wanted to work for.

UNICEF Cambodia does indeed have a representation from alumni of our school and I was happy to carry forward the legacy of partnership between the two. The project that fell in mykitty as an intern could not be better, considering my background and future aspirations. UNICEF Headquarter has been working on a massive project to develop a global tool (survey questionnaire) to assess the barriers faced by children with special needs towards their participation in schools. UNICEF Cambodia was chosen as the Country Office in South East Asia to support the Headquarter in cognitive testing of the questionnaire. The results from the cognitive testing phase were to be used to refine the questions in the survey and crystallize the final version of the questionnaire. The grand vision while designing this questionnaire was to provide governments with a tool to add to their household surveys/census, which will facilitate universal data collection for inclusive education policy development. With my background as a special educator, I was designated the role of supporting the implementation of this exercise in Cambodia.

It was interesting to observe and troubleshoot for challenges that came underway the implementation of a project planned on such a massive scale. My prime responsibility and a key takeaway from this exercise was collaborating with all the involved stakeholders – UNICEF HQ, government counterpart in Cambodia as well as UNICEF Cambodia internally. I was also responsible for working on the sampling strategy and overlooking at the technical aspects of the project. I realized that having a specialized knowledge of a field, in my case - special education, came to my benefit. It allowed me to constructively contribute in the week long piloting of the survey and to I further draft a piece about the implementation of the exercise for UNICEF’s internal website.

I also worked with the external communications team to develop the Human Interest Stories for the education section at UNICEF Cambodia. Developing Human Interest Stories is all about gauging the impact of UNICEF’s programmes at grassroots level. This was a great opportunity for me in two ways. First, I got a chance to understand the various programmes that UNICEF is implementing nationwide in Cambodia. Second, I visited two remote provinces, far from the city chaos of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh has adapted itself to a busy cosmopolitan life, but these remote provinces remain serene and untouched, more so in terms of the services provided to them. It was interesting to see the reach of UNICEF’s work in these provinces and bring back lessons from the field to feed into the fine tuning of delivery strategy of these programmes.

Undoubtedly, this was a great professional leap for me. But this experience was very enriching on a personal level too. In a rather eventful year, Cambodia became the second country (after Singapore) that I could call home. A common thread that connects most Asian nations is their rise from the ashes of colonialism and Cambodia wasn’t an exception. It was fascinating to draw parallels between post-independence trajectories of Cambodia, Singapore and India. Cambodia has now assimilated into a multi-cultural country, humbly integrating the horde of expat community as well as vigorously tailoring the tourism needs of the country. Cambodia – the land of Angkor - is home to spectacular temples and pagodas. While it was easy to fall into the groove of Phnom Penh, escaping to countryside gave a glimpse into the humble lifestyle of Cambodians within the massive green landscapes. One of the most exciting experiences for me was trying my hand with Khmer. It was surprising yet heart-warming to realize that Khmer has its roots in Sanskrit and Pali, the two ancient Indian languages, owing to Cambodia’s links with ancient Indian rulers and empires.

Working with the UN opens doors for great career opportunities ahead. Not only did I get a chance to know UN personnel and their professional trajectories, I also got a chance to see first-hand the UN processes and systems. Since international organizations have been on my radar for embarking on a career in education policy, this experience will surely come in handy during the next juncture of my professional life when I start looking for jobs with similar international organizations.

A cost-benefit analysis of the summer internship, weighs heavily on the benefit side. The entries to cost column would only be the financial burden as an unpaid UN Intern. Despite knowing about UN’s internship policy, I could easily make the choice to accept the internship offer from UNICEF, thanks to the LKY School Internship Funding. I suppose the school does give you wings to fly and taste your dreams for real. It has immensely been a learning experience and I hugely recommend others to take the plunge too. I accumulated memories for life in the summer of 2017.