Signe Jepsen, GSAS '03
Please briefly describe your current position in more detail, including your responsibilities and job tasks:
I work as a Humanitarian Affairs Officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York, which mobilizes and coordinates humanitarian responses to emergencies. My current position is with the Coordination and Response Division, which is charged with humanitarian analyses, operational planning and monitoring of emergency response coordination.
As a Middle East Desk Officer in OCHA, I serve as the daily connection between humanitarian field operations and headquarters. I provide day-to-day operational support to colleagues in the field and advise senior UN official in headquarters on humanitarian and operational needs and responses in the countries I cover. I am also involved in more longer term, strategic planning of humanitarian response, operational capacity, advocacy and fundraising, which involves preparation of background information, updates on humanitarian developments and policy advice to senior officers in OCHA and other parts of the United Nations, including the Secretary-General. I am liaising and coordinating with the field, agencies, partners and stakeholders, in developing analyses of humanitarian risks and needs, operational response and capacity.
Please briefly describe your career path, including the reasons behind job changes, since graduating from Columbia University:
After graduating from Columbia University in 2003, I moved back to my native Denmark to complete a second Master's Degree in Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. I also worked part time at the Danish Institute for International Studies and took Arabic language courses. In 2005, I was about to enter a Ph.D. program in Copenhagen, when I was offered a position as Associate Expert with the United Nations Department of Political Affairs. I decided to stray from my academic career plans to gain some practical experience and accepted the position.
My UN career began in the Security Council Secretariat, providing substantial support to the Security Council, monitoring and reporting on developments in international peace and security, and preparing analytical reports on the Security Council's negotiations. After four years, I was ready to learn more about the UN's political work outside of the Security Council and was looking to re-focus my career on the Middle East, which had been at the center of my graduate studies.
I started working as a Political Affairs Officer in the Division for Palestinian Rights, and was responsible for organizing international meetings on the Palestinian question and the Middle East peace process. Other daily tasks included reporting on developments pertaining to Palestinian issues and civil society outreach. After a year, I was offered a job in the office of the Director of my current Division in OCHA and I decided that it was time to switch lanes and get to know the humanitarian dimension of the work of the United Nations. After a few months in that post, the Arab Uprisings increased the need for people with knowledge of the region to support the Middle East/North Africa desk and I was selected first on a temporary basis, which later became more permanent.
How did your experiences at Columbia University (e.g., academic studies, extra-curricular activities, student groups) prepare you for your career?:
Studying at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was an invaluable experience, professionally and personally. The comprehensive curriculum and intensive coursework expanded my knowledge of international affairs and political dynamics, while the numerous term-papers and one-on-one advisory sessions with some of the world’s best political science professors enhanced my analytical and drafting competencies.
While the very inspiring professors challenged and encouraged me to go the extra mile in my academic studies, the enthusiastic and creative environment among the students on campus was an invaluable addition to my Columbia experience. The international make-up of Columbia’s student corps provided a unique opportunity to learn how to interact in a multicultural setting, to draw benefit from other perspectives and to learn about different parts of the world.
What job resources (internships, summer opportunities, work experiences, or individuals) have influenced your career choice(s)?:
While in retrospective my career path may look very linear, that is not how it felt along the way. There were numerous bumps in the road and I made several mental u-turns; from an academic career trajectory to international public service, and from the political realm to humanitarian work.
Through active membership of the NGO United Nations Association, I learned a lot about the United Nations and about UN job opportunities, including the Associate Expert Program, which I later became a part of. However, the most influential people in my professional life were academic scholars, who were passionate about their work and managed to combine theoretical research with practical international experience.
In addition to solid analytical and drafting competences, international experience and knowledge of languages opened many doors for me. Living and studying in France and the United States provided me not only with strong language skills, but also the ability to work effectively in a multicultural context and the desire to have an international life and career. Learning Arabic also added value and focus to my career path.
What advice would you give to a Columbia student or graduate interested in your field?:
Gaining international experience and learning languages is crucial. Studying, volunteering or working abroad is invaluable for a future international career as well as for your own personal growth.
If you strive for a career as an international civil servant, whether it’s in a small humanitarian NGO or with the United Nations, the value of international experience cannot be overstated. Field positions are often more accessible entry points to an organization than Headquarter posts and internships can provide valuable exposure to the work of the organization.
My most important advice would be to be open to unexpected opportunities that might not be part of the plan that you have set for yourself. Plans can change and it’s important to be flexible, since you will most likely not get the dream job right out of school. You may even need to try on different lines of work, before discovering what the dream job is.