My UEA Story: Eyram
"Undoubtedly, UEA is one of the best universities in the UK offering academic degree programmes in the field of international development."
I’d love to know more about your experience at UEA. What are your fondest memories of your time here?
I did the MA in Development Studies (now MA in International Development) at the School of International Development (DEV), UEA, between September 2011 and September 2012, which was frankly a dream come true, considering the solid reputation of the school as a top-ranked institution for the study of international development. The “Working in Development” Forum, where alumni spoke about careers in international development consulting, project management, humanitarian affairs, and so on was a great platform for students to get exposed to the professional possibilities that exist. We also had bi-weekly meetings with our MA Coordinator at the time, Dr. Ed Anderson, to look at how we were faring, occasionally followed by a ‘pot-luck’ party where students of different nationalities brought and shared their traditional foods. I cannot forget the workshop we had with Professor Robert Chambers about rural development and local participation, which I learned a lot from and which would later help me in my work. On the social side, I enjoyed playing football at the SportsPark with the guys, walking around the lake (Broad) and living with other students in Norfolk Terrace (apart from when an alarm goes off and everyone has to quickly exit the building! But safety is the priority). I also enjoyed the Film Nights organized by DEVSOC (with Pizza).
Why did you choose to study at UEA rather than another institution?
Undoubtedly, UEA is one of the best universities in the UK offering academic degree programmes in the field of international development and is highly respected by both academic institutions and employers. I had strong interests in studying at UEA because it offered an MA in Development Studies with a wide range of modules to choose from, a great teaching faculty and modern learning facilities.
I’m very curious to know how you progressed from graduation to where you are now – what was your career path from graduation to your current role?
I intensified my applications for entry-level jobs immediately after the second semester for taught modules, also using the skills learned from the CV workshops organized by the Careers and Employability Centre. About a month or two before I completed my programme at UEA (while working on my dissertation), I got a 4-month internship with the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, located in Togo. Though it was unpaid, I viewed it as the first step towards a successful career in the UN. While there, I kept applying for other international entry-level positions and had some interviews which built my confidence and strengthened my interviewing techniques.
After the internship, I returned to Ghana, my home country, and applied for several positions in the development field. I got an offer to serve as a UN Volunteer Project Officer with UNICEF to support monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and other related activities under their WASH Programme in Northern Ghana. I worked there for a little over two years, and based on the successful experience, I decided to go back to school to improve my M&E skills. A few months into my second masters (in Development Evaluation), I got offered my current position as an Associate Humanitarian Affairs Officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar, which I had applied for during my UNV assignment but had lost track of. I took up this new role, which I have been working in for more than two years now.
What drew you to work in the field that you currently work in? To what extent has your career been planned/unfolded by chance?
The UN’s work covers a broad range of issues including humanitarian affairs (in response to natural disasters and other complex crises), which I found interesting. During my programme at UEA, I took the opportunity to do some of the short courses on offer including the “Essentials of Humanitarian Practice” course facilitated by RedR UK, an international humanitarian training organization. The course provided a deeper understanding of the international humanitarian architecture, frameworks (IHL, Refugee Law, etc.) and roles and responsibilities of various agencies. With this background, I was able to prepare for opportunities in humanitarian affairs. I knew from the outset international development and humanitarian work was what I wanted to do, so I did a lot of background research on the work of several agencies, what hiring departments looked for, possible entry-level positions, and so on. Each opportunity I have had feeds into the next, so every effort or investment in terms of time or capacity building has been strategic and worthwhile.
Can you describe your current role? How does a typical day look like, and what are the most rewarding/challenging aspects?
I work as an Associate Humanitarian Affairs Officer, supporting the OCHA team in Myanmar to carry out its coordination functions by helping to bring together key humanitarian agents and sectors/clusters to discuss common approaches and minimize gaps and duplication in the humanitarian response, support rapid deployments to affected areas during new emergencies, coordinate joint needs assessments, and so on. I also contribute to the work on private sector engagement for disaster preparedness, and Cash Transfer Programme coordination. A typical day involves receiving and/or sharing updates on aspects of the humanitarian situation, participating in coordination meetings or events and following up on important actions, collecting/cleaning/analyzing data, or reviewing draft documents on thematic issues such as disaster preparedness and response. People from various organizations (national or international staff) you come in contact with regularly become part of an ever-growing professional network. Bringing several actors together to discuss and agree on issues can be a huge challenge for humanitarian coordination due to diverging organizational mandates, etc. Humanitarian access to reach affected populations can also be difficult due to issues such as insecurity.
Do you have any advice for students on choosing a career or gaining employment? What worked for you or didn’t, in your job search? How did you get your current job?
Having a clear strategy was my first and most important step, and I would encourage students to invest time in planning their careers and not focus entirely on just getting a job. There is a saying that “Your employers own your job (i.e., job security is hardly guaranteed) but you own your career”. So identify your professional interests early by speaking to your academic supervisors and other students. Look at relevant professional profiles and the programme areas of organizations you would like to work for. Initial work opportunities might not be financially rewarding but can offer a wealth of relevant experience and practical skills that would place you in high demand, so one needs to stay open-minded. Consider becoming a volunteer to support the work of local NGOs and international organizations – you can do this online through the UN Online Volunteering service. If you are looking to gain some international work experience while at school, this could be incredibly valuable. Personally, I find being able to articulate and communicate one’s contributions (e.g., in group assignments or student research work) a necessary skill which demonstrates how well one works with other people in teams. Check the websites of organizations directly for job vacancies because there are organizations which do not advertise vacancies on dedicated job portals. Take note of the timing of calls for applications for positions targeting young professionals during the year so that you can prepare adequately to send a strong application. This has worked for me.
And finally, any words of wisdom for our current students?
Map out a strategy for your career, and be proactive in your search for vacancies, updating your CV, applying for the job, and following up. Maintain a network of school/classmates through which you can keep exchanging information and motivating each other, before and after you graduate from UEA.
Eyram studied MA Development Studies, graduating in 2013.