Michigan 4-H alumna shares experience interning at the United Nations

Hear how one Michigan 4-H World Food Prize Michigan Youth Institute alumni started working as an intern at the United Nations and what her biggest takeaways from her experience were.

Kayla Zhu in the General Assembly Hall at the UN debate for the election of the next UN Secretary-General.
Kayla Zhu in the General Assembly Hall at the UN debate for the election of the next UN Secretary-General.

Kayla Zhu is an alumna of the World Food Prize Michigan Youth Institute, a Michigan 4-H global leadership and citizenship event that is co-sponsored by Michigan 4-H, MI FFA, Michigan State University Extension and MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. After attending World Food Prize Michigan Youth Institute, Zhu was selected to represent the state of Michigan as a delegate at the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, concurrently with the annual Borlaug Dialogues. At the event, Zhu shared her ideas about global food security with peers from around the United States and roundtable experts from around the world.

Michigan 4-H staff watched Zhu engage in deep dialogue with others, expanding her network continually throughout the event. Even on the bus ride to the airport, Zhu sat next to a stranger who, unbeknownst to Zhu at the time, was an international diplomat. Zhu has consistently shown her passion for global civic engagement throughout her engagement in Michigan 4-H activities, her high school's Model UN program, and her other extracurricular activities.

Earlier this year we heard Zhu’s thoughts on youth civic engagement in, “Building teen’s civic toolbox – Part 1: Teens as engaged citizens.” This continues Zhu’s story, with her experience and advice after working and learning at the United Nations (UN):

Makena (M): Tell me about your experience working with the UN.

Kayla (K): It was a really amazing experience. I found it online via a non-government organization (NGO) economic and social council at the UN. I applied and got accepted, but didn’t know what to except. It was an educational program with a research project at the end, rather than typical “intern” jobs (like getting coffee or making copies). I got a UN grounds pass and saw all the people that I normally see on the news at a conference center just walking around where I was! I always thought of them as an inaccessible, second level of people doing really prestigious work, but being an intern in high school at the UN was a great conversation starter for me. I would introduce myself to people just walking around. I knew it was unlikely for me to see these people again, so I figured I didn’t have much to lose to ask them to talk. This is how I met some of my closest mentors now.

It’s just amazing how accessible the people are if you get the space. I wouldn’t have thought I could ever interact with diplomats, but everyone is super open and have come from all walks of life. As a regular citizen, I see there are diplomatic tensions on the news, but at the UN they are all working together. Even if two countries have tensions, they’re interacting with each other – an interesting kind of dynamic and camaraderie. Its things the public doesn’t normally know about.

I also worked with UN Major Group for Children and Youth – different stakeholder or civil society groups – that are pretty accessible to the public. They’re at the UN every day working and bring in youth representatives from around the world to represent their stakeholder group. I was talking to one of the founders of the major group and he was explaining the idea of bringing passionate young people into the group for writing and speaking opportunities. I saw this as actually making a difference by contributing your voice at the international conference level and decided to get involved.

M: You mentioned an educational research project. What was your project on?

K: My project was on the financing of humanitarian aid. It is widely recognized that humanitarian aid isn’t necessarily sustainable in current form, but is still necessary today. As someone who thinks more practically, all the things I heard at the UN were broad and conceptual, and it was harder for me to wrap my head around. After attending an International Red Cross event where I heard practical logistics to reach goals, I was inspired to look more into financing.

I’m interested in the broad Sustainable Development Goals and economics. One of my key findings was the value of “cash-based programs” where recipients are most able to feel the effects of the aid, because people can buy what they need and then are also reinvesting in the local economy, and often programs include requirements of investment in health care for child as well education.

M: How did you find out about the experience and what advice would you give to someone hoping to apply for a similar program?

K: I heard through a friend of a friend that had connections at the UN that high schoolers could do internships, so I wanted to see if I could get my foot in the door without that “who you know” connection. All the NGOs at the UN are allowed to have two youth representatives, so if you’re a passionate individual interested in international work, you should reach out to a NGO and see if you can be a youth representative for them. The opportunities are there, you just have to dig around a little bit.

M: Who was your favorite person to meet/work with?

K: The other interns. Everyone came from so many different places; a diverse group of high school students with all differing life experiences. Someone else I met that I really enjoyed talking to was a Korean legal officer from the UN international trade division. He was chairing the committee I sat in on. He was interested to see such a young person at the meeting and took time to explain the legal process in ways we would understand. He wasn’t condescending about it; instead, he was so willing to take time out of his busy day to teach young people. This experience really made me feel like I could put myself out there.

M: What is your biggest takeaway?

K: Life experiences! The biggest takeaway I learned is to put yourself out there. That’s the most you can do for yourself. As someone who is interested in a career involving government and politics, the industry is so heavy on personal connections. In the beginning I was cynical of the whole process – why would they want to talk to me? The thing is, when you’re given the opportunity, the resources are there, but it’s up to you to make something out of it. I’ve had other interactions in government, but I realized throughout this program that all I can do is my best to make a good first impression!

M: Do you think young people should have a global perspective? If so, why?

K: It is definitely important. We’re the ones that will feel the effects of these policies 20 years from now, five years from now, right now. Things like children and youth, health care and education are governing us, and there is limited youth engagement, which is disturbing. People say they want to hear youth voice, but there isn’t a great opportunity for youth to do a lot of work. The fact that people are bringing youth on to the team to observe and participate, even without intending to, they’re developing youth leadership at a variety of levels. When given the opportunity, you have a seat at the table, now prove that you can make the most of your seat.

M: How can youth gain a global perspective from home (e.g., without an opportunity like your UN internship)?

K: Stay informed. Read everything. Have conversations with people in your community. Those conversations will push you to expand your perspective in your local community, and there are so many different kinds of people that you might not think about talking to, who each have so many interesting things to say. Through conversations, you’ll expand your perspective. You never know whom you’re talking to and what opportunities will come up. Never let go of a chance to talk to someone new because you’ll never know what they do if you don’t. If you’re a high school student, consider joining Model UN club at your high school; it is one platform for having these kinds of conversations.

Michigan 4-H is constantly working to provide opportunities for learning and growth to youth leaders around the state. Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.”

Did you find this article useful?