by Riona Judge McCormack

[In September of last year]

“A lot of the things you have done so far, they’ve been very… direct, very much on the ground.” The interviewer for the Irish government taps his teeth with his pen thoughtfully. “Whereas this internship would have you sitting in an office. A very different environment. This would be my only concern about putting you forward.”

I clear my throat, uncross and recross my legs.

“Well, um… the way I see it, I have had experience at the grassroots level, at the local level. Now it is important for me to see the other side. To see what it looks like from within an international organisation, from a more … ah, strategic position.”

“It doesn’t worry you at all?” He fixes me with sharp, but kindly, eyes. “You don’t think you would find it too constraining? Frustrating?”

At this stage, I have three more interviews, another application form, and two months of waiting ahead of me. I am not thinking about the job yet, just about getting through the process.

I put on my brightest smile.

“Oh, no. Not at all.”

Lying through my shiny white teeth.


My desk, when I first see it, is partly buried under a mess of paperwork – something, perhaps, that was once several stacks of paper, which has since suffered a fatal avalanche. There are more papers heaped on the spare chair, on the tops of filing cabinets, on the floor. A second desk has been completely lost in a mire of arch lever folders and suspension files.

I stand in the office doorway, taking this in. From behind me my supervisor says:

“Ah, yes. There is, er, quite a bit of filing to be done.”

Fifteen years of it, as it turns out. So I spend my first week in the UN learning the value of humility. I file. I clear out drawers. I heave folders and boxes this way and that. I make fruitless calls to Geneva, in search of filing guidelines. I tidy away several pounds of bulldog clips. I get covered in years of accumulated dust.

Afterwards, the tips of my fingers sting from papercuts. I suck on them, wincing, and remember a certain form of death sentence in Imperial China: by a thousand tiny cuts.

And so the glitter wears off. It had begun to flake away long before I arrived, in the exchange of contracts and medical information and gender sensitisation manuals. We meet UN staff members and realise they are just like staff anywhere: some good, some bad. Some just plain indifferent. It happens gradually. We get issued with the ID card, fill out the forms, take the security training. We start to move from the outside to the inside. And from within, the view is surprisingly ordinary.

There are moments when you catch sight of yourself, accidentally, and you remember. Waiting on the pavement outside an event, spotting the blindingly white land cruiser with United Nations Human Rights emblazoned across it make its way towards you, and realising: that’s me.

Or when you open a drawer and there are photographs of dead people in it.

This happens more often than you would think.


What happens is, it becomes real. Beyond the idea of it, beyond the notions of glamour and excitement, there is a job. There is an office. There is a desk.

My desk.

It is sometimes frustrating, and boring, and unspeakably bureaucratic. For several weeks I am not at all sure what it is I am supposed to be doing. I get depressed, I tell my fellow UNVs that I am going to leave, change jobs, run home. I even forget to feel secretly smug about my UN-branded notebooks and pens and e-mail address.

But I stay, and I begin to realize that although it is not what I expected, it is also interesting, and challenging, and ever-changing. What matters is not the imagined glamour or importance, or the name on a CV. What matters is being able to push yourself, to learn and grow and discover whole new worlds and ways of doing things. What matters is being surrounded by colleagues who are exploring ideas, projects, places, and who bring back news from farms and schools and prisons and ministries. What matters is that as my supervisor asked me to draft up a plan of work for the year, he added that I should not feel bound by what had been done before, but rather:

“Keep an open mind and let your ideas blossom.”

And that is worth a lot of papercuts.


One response »

  1. Alessia says:

    You probably don’t know how much I understand you…I couldn’t describe better how I feel…did we really have to high expectations???

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