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On the path to a career in international engagement, an IUPUI student becomes a United Nations intern

March 7, 2017

Last semester, senior Vannary Kong sat in the Student Technology Center computer lab at 2 a.m., applying for an internship she never thought she would get. 

Vannary Kong in front of the United Nations building in New York

Vannary Kong is spending her spring semester interning in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations in New York. | PHOTO COURTESY OF VANNARY KONG

A few months later, she got the call that proved her wrong.

Kong is spending her spring semester in New York at the United Nations headquarters as an intern with the Division for Public Administration and Development Management, Department of Economic and Social Affairs

"I'm still so in shock that it actually happened," said Kong, a political science and international studies major. "Even now that I'm sitting in this office in New York, I can't believe it. It's a dream come true."

The news couldn't have come at a better time.

Financial and personal struggles had left Kong without a roof over her head and very little money to live on. She was working three jobs to make ends meet, all while going to school full time. Then Glenda Ritz, the superintendent of public instruction at the time, for whom Kong was interning, lost the election -- putting Kong out of a job.

But on the same day she lost her job, another door opened for her: an internship with the United Nations. On Jan. 23, she moved to New York, thanks to a sponsorship from Orchard Medical Missions, and began her new role. Most of her work revolves around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and planning for the Public Service Awards, which will take place June 23 in The Hague, Netherlands. The Sustainable Development Goals support advancement in areas such as education, equality, climate action and eradicating poverty, among others, in conjunction with Agenda 2030. 

Kong, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Cambodia, grew up exposed to multiple cultures. Her father is French Creole and African American; her mom is Asian. She knows firsthand the importance of diversity and cultural exchange, so her experience at the United Nations is made even richer by the fact that 95 percent of the interns are from outside the U.S. In fact, she's the only American in her department. 

"I think it is really interesting working with people from around the world, and it definitely provides an exchange of culture and ideas," she said. "I am able to use my languages of Chinese, Cambodian and Spanish at work."

This isn't Kong’s first introduction to politics or internationals affairs, however. She has dedicated her college career to making as much difference as she can. She has had five internships in addition to her current position with the United Nations, which have given her opportunities to teach English, American culture and citizenship classes to refugees relocating to the United States; assist with voter registration among the refugee and college student demographics; participate in policy discussions regarding social justice; facilitate international business relations; and assist with political campaigns.

In addition to her work in politics, Kong's upbringing contributed to her interest in international affairs. Her maternal family members are refugees from Cambodia, and her grandfather worked for the American Embassy before the Khmer Rouge regime took over Cambodia in 1975. 

“International affairs is one of the main avenues to help accomplish solving the world's main issues, because government agencies, the public and private sectors, nongovernmental agencies, civil societies, and volunteers all come together to collaborate in order to help those in need," Kong said. "I personally want to help developing nations who struggle to help their own communities.”

While she's in New York, Kong is taking online classes, and she will complete her undergraduate degree in December. After graduating, she plans to attend graduate school and continue to strive toward her goal of bettering the world through international engagement. 

Kong attributes much of her success so far to her experience at IUPUI. 

"IUPUI has provided me with the platform to be a student leader and to take initiative to gain opportunities to learn and share my own story about diversity and inclusion," she said. "I'm proud to be representing IUPUI in New York."

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