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Shifting expectations and the perks of my remote internship

By Catherine Harris

It certainly hasn’t been the summer I was expecting, but there have been some good perks.

I was expecting… to be spending the last few months in Geneva, Switzerland interning for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as part of the Duke-Geneva program. OCHA leads principled humanitarian coordination, advocacy, policy, information management and humanitarian financing. It is currently coordinating the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan helping to make sure humanitarian funding is reaching the places most in need.

Catherine hiking at Eno River State Park.

I am still completing my internship with the Emergency Response Support Branch, supporting the IMPACCT Working Group, but from my one-bedroom apartment in Durham, North Carolina near Duke University. I admit I love the commute—it is exactly 12 steps from my bed to my desk. (17 if I stop by the kitchen for a coffee!) As a result of the 6-hour time difference between me and my new colleagues, my mornings are full of videoconferences and instant messages before they log-off around mid-day in my local time. I admit I keep the video camera off for some of the early morning virtual meetings when I’m usually still in my pajamas! I also love the ability to take an afternoon nap without weird looks from my colleagues and easy access to my full kitchen without the mess of other co-workers or the expense of eating out.

And yet…, before I came to Durham, I’d been working in an international disaster response role, travelling frequently and helping disaster response operations across my region. In the past few months, the furthest I’ve travelled has been thirty-minutes by car to reach the Duke Forest and Eno River hiking trails to go for a walk—by myself. Instead of sharing extraordinary stories to my family back home in Australia about my international work, I send photos of the local birds, squirrels and rabbits that have given me company. I have enjoyed getting to know this beautiful area, but at the same time, I sometimes wonder: am I still meeting the goals and expectations I set for myself when I came to Duke University?

Eno River State Park in summer.
A rabbit found in Duke Forest.

But that’s the thing about expectations—they keep evolving and changing and you have to be able to let them go and form new ones. I know I am not alone in this process and that everyone has needed to adapt to the rapidly changing world since the impact of COVID-19.

I am grateful to have spent this summer completing the remote internship with OCHA. I’ve been inspired by my supervisor’s seemingly endless energy and determination. She has given me a platform to use my past experiences in disaster response to draft global Recommendations and Guidelines for Cross Border Facilitation Measures for Disaster Relief to improve the speed and efficiency of importing needed goods and equipment after a sudden onset natural disaster. It is a great initiative that I hope has even more impact at this current time when many organizations are reviewing their emergency supply chain strategies.

Disaster relief items arriving in Tonga after Cyclone Gita, 2018.

I am particularly proud that after a Sanford Careers session with former Director of USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information, Juanita Rilling, we included in the guidelines recommendations for how disaster affected countries can discourage unrequested donated goods from often well-meaning but misguided overseas partners. (These unwanted donations frequently contribute to bottlenecks at airports and slow down disaster relief operations.) I have now hosted a series of public consultations presenting the guidelines to around twenty different organizations globally to gather feedback. I have also completed a range of on-line learning courses, designed further research and volunteered for a local organization half a day a week.

But unexpectedly, perhaps the biggest “perk”—and what I am most grateful for—has been this time to stay still, pause and reflect. (Although I do look forward to visiting Geneva and meeting all those I’ve virtually worked with in-person one day.) Maybe, despite all the shifting expectations, I remain on track.

Catherine Harris is completing a Master’s in International Development Policy at Sanford School of Public Policy supported by the Rotary Peace Fellows Program. She participated in the modified Duke-Geneva program during summer 2020.

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