By Sailor Miao ’24
The Global Research Institute’s Summer Fellows Program provides international experiential learning opportunities to W&M students. This post is one installment of a series highlighting the 2023 Fellows’ key discoveries and formative experiences.
As I stepped onto the hallowed grounds of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, a flood of memories washed over me. It brought me back to my childhood, to that moment when I turned to my mom and asked, “Is the UN a beautiful nation?” I can still hear her gentle laughter as she explained that it was, in fact, the government of the world. Growing up in China, I never fathomed that I would one day set foot inside the UNHQ, let alone intern there. Yet, there I stood near the very marble podium where Presidents and Prime Ministers passionately debated international affairs.
My first time in the General Assembly Hall in UNHQ.
Initially, I was uncertain about what I would do this summer with the United Nations Development Programme’s Crisis Bureau (CB). I had conjured up a somewhat romanticized image: I would write news briefings amidst a world perpetually engulfed in crises, or coordinate international aid efforts. However, reality had other plans. My responsibilities included designing infographics for news updates within our team, the Risk Anticipation Hub, and drafting reports. It soon became clear that my work held its own significance, akin to that of UN Peacekeepers in the field. I condensed volumes of information into concise paragraphs, making our work more accessible to others.
My focus centered on the team’s flagship product, the Crisis Risk Dashboard (CRD), a cutting-edge data aggregation and visualization platform designed to contextualize risks in different countries. Admittedly, the UN’s intricate structure initially left me confused. I grappled with distinguishing UNOCHA from UNDP, but through diligent study, numerous conversations with colleagues, and guidance from my supervisor, Corrado, I gradually understood the jargon. My first major undertaking involved compiling a comprehensive report on all CRDs operated by UNDP worldwide. I meticulously combed through each CRD’s website, reading about various indicators, from GDP per capita to incidents of electoral violence, in an effort to grasp the core of each country’s conflicts.
Another notable task was drafting a blog post that employed big data to discern trends in conflict-ridden countries, such as Sudan. My fascination with Sudanese politics had ignited in Professor Clemens’ class at W&M, when I presented research on the deposition of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Standing behind the Mural in the Security Council by Per Krohg.
At the time, my research predicted Sudan’s gradual transition towards democracy, but sadly, the nation descended into chaos as military factions engaged in internal conflicts. To gain deeper insight, I attended a UN Security Council meeting, where the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, briefed the Council on war crime charges. I vividly recall the impassioned plea for peace and accountability from the Sudanese Ambassador. It was a rare moment of near-universal consensus, as diplomats, one after another, expressed unwavering support for the ICC to take action to prosecute individuals that committed unspeakable offenses against their own people. While I am well-aware of the performative nature sometimes involved in international diplomacy, witnessing diplomats extend their hands in solidarity to the Sudanese Ambassador was profoundly moving. In that instant, our world seemed to mirror the vision of Norwegian artist Per Krohg, as depicted in his mural in the Council — a world uniting and emerging from the darkness of war, much like a Phoenix.
UNDP, like any other organization, has its ebbs and flows, but it is abundantly clear to me that the people here genuinely care about development and peace. There may be more lucrative and glamorous career paths, but some have chosen this noble calling, dedicating themselves to preserving our fragile peace. I learned so much from the fellowship experience: I not only gained insight about the day-to-day work of people in the development sphere, but I also got in touch with novel subjects, such as generative AI and anticipatory warning systems.
Watching Fourth of July Fireworks on East River in Manhattan with friends.
Outside work, I seized every opportunity to explore the city during weekends and breaks. I savored Char siu with fried rice from the cozy, family-run restaurants in Chinatown and walked across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge with friends at sunset. The Big Apple is full of history and allure, from the somber Ground-Zero near the 9/11 Museum to the rare insects and fossils at the American Museum of Natural History; from experiencing Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet in Central Park to indulging in a musical tribute to Neil Diamond on Broadway, I fell in love with this bustling city full of rats and seemingly cold people.
My time at UNDP has been nothing short of life-changing. It not only offered me invaluable insights into crisis prevention and expanded my understanding of international organizations but also connected me with a remarkable group of colleagues. While I am still unsure what I want to pursue in the future, I have a more profound understanding of international diplomacy. I want to continue working in an international organization, such as the UNDP, when I graduate. Specifically, I want to work at a field office outside of the United States: I will not only be able to travel to unique places, but I will also be able to help underprivileged people. I am deeply grateful to my supervisor, Corrado, as well as Sun-joo, José, Shourya, and others for their patience and mentorship. I also extend my heartfelt thanks to Professor Mike Tierney, Director David Trichler, and GRI for their unwavering support.