Adapting in times of crisis - an intern at the epicentre of religion, conflict and dialogue

What do you get when you mix a theology student, the United Nations and a global pandemic? For Emma Nikkilä, it made for an unbelievable internship.

Emma Nikkilä saw a posting for her dream internship in the autumn of 2019. Under the Finnish Permanent Mission to the United Nations, the intern would follow and report on the UN Security Council. Nikkilä had to apply.

"My academic interests matched the position perfectly."

Nikkilä is a student in the Master’s Programme in Intercultural Encounters, an interdisciplinary programme where students can pursue a degree in the Faculty of Arts or the Faculty of Theology. Expanding on her previous studies, Nikkilä chose the theology track. She specialises in Religion, Conflict and Dialogue, one of four thematic modules.

"I am interested in the role that religion plays in conflict situations and how international organisations can promote dialogue and build peace. The UN is active in many of the cases we investigate in class."

Nikkilä jumped at the opportunity to see their work first-hand.

"I bring a unique perspective to the table"

Although her specialisation is relevant to many careers, Nikkilä finds job applications tricky. Employers are sometimes uncertain about the contents of her education.

“When people hear that I study theology, they always ask, 'Are you going to be a priest?' That is a misconception. You don't have to be religious to study religion.”

In fact, Nikkilä was drawn to comparative religion to look outside her personal background. She is especially focused on Islamic theology and the many ways Islam is interpreted and practiced.

Despite some misunderstandings, Nikkilä thinks the general public is becoming more aware of religion's influence in society. She says the need for experts is increasing and employers are taking notice.

"Transnational bodies and peace-related organisations are looking for employees who can identify and navigate the complexities of religion. Theology students are well prepared to do just that."

It was even Nikkilä's speciality in religion that won her the internship.

"When I was offered the position, I was told my educational background was unique and that it made my application memorable. I bring a unique perspective to the table."

Putting her skills to the test

In February 2020, Nikkilä took off to the United States and began her three-month placement in New York City. In the first few weeks, she dove into the internship.

“My main task was to follow the Security Council meetings, then write reports back to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. I monitored different countries' situations, especially in Africa and the Middle East, and I also gathered information on thematic areas, such as youth and peace."

Nikkilä says her studies frequently came up during work. She highlights the practice of conflict mapping, a common assignment in her classes.

"Conflict mapping is about quickly pulling the most important points out of a huge pile of information. In one course, we had to write a summary of the Israel-Palestine conflict on one sheet of paper! It was challenging, but now I understand why we did that."

Those assignments helped Nikkilä to write quickly and concisely about complex issues, like the ones being discussed in front of her.

"This skill was essential in my internship. I would have been lost without it."

Additionally, Nikkilä says that her classes helped her to gain the mental stamina necessary to work in an international organisation.

"The UN is quite hectic. The working schedule is super full and everything happens at a moment's notice. For instance, you’ll get an email that you have to go somewhere immediately. Or you might already be working on several projects then something more important comes up. Sometimes I had to report on several meetings at the same time!"

Although it was a balancing act, Nikkilä felt prepared.

"In my Master's programme, there is a lot of group work and many small tasks during each class. I also volunteer with the Red Cross and am the treasurer of a student organisation called Orbis. With all of the responsibilities that Master's students face, staying organised is key. I have learned to manage a full schedule, even under pressure."

Working in the time of COVID-19

Over the course of a month and a half, Nikkilä settled into a flow with her tasks. Then, her adaptability was tested further. New York City became an epicentre in a global pandemic.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the city, Nikkilä started working from her apartment, quarantined with a roommate who she had only just met. Although the situation was concerning, Nikkilä said she was too focused to be scared.

"It was interesting to see how the UN adjusted to the unprecedented scenario and how their operations transferred to digital platforms. It wasn't always smooth, but somehow, the meetings still went on."

Within several weeks the situation had worsened and Nikkilä was called back to Finland. Luckily, she was able to continue her internship.

Nikkilä continued to work remotely, keeping unusual hours to match New York's time zone. The pandemic did affect some of her tasks, like planning in-person events, but Nikkilä was able to fulfil the most important aspects of her role.

"Suddenly, I fully realised the impact of my tasks. In a rapidly changing environment, my reports would help Finland stay consistent with the UN's strategies. It was a super rewarding experience...the best internship I could ever have."

After completing her work, Nikkilä is digging deeper into her courses with a newfound understanding of how they relate to working life.

"I put theory into practice during one of the most challenging times in recent history. The skills I have developed in my Master's programme helped me adapt in a global crisis."

Learn more about the Master's Programme in Intercultural Encounters.  

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