Skip to main content

How to get an internship in development - my experience with UNHCR Amman


Getting an Internship in development is notoriously difficult, and finding funding to enable you to do it may seem even more impossible. BA International Development graduate Yumna Usmani shares her experience of securing her dream internship with UNHCR Amman and gives some encouraging tips to development students keen to work in the field.

Blog post by Yumna M. Usmani

As a B.A. International Development student, I felt it very keenly that I needed some experience in the field before I entered it formally after my graduation. Having squandered away my first year's summer vacation, I now felt guilty. However, what was I to do? Paid internships in the development sector are hard to come by and voluntary internships are expensive, especially for an international student who already has to pay a lot more than national students. Therefore, I set myself the task of finding funding. I looked at various opportunities, being an international student meant that I had a much more limited variety of funding available to me. Some of the funding I looked at were: Leeds for Life, Gilbert Murray Trust and some other University grants.

Before I could start applying for funding I had to first find a volunteering opportunity. The sector I most wanted to work in was Refugee and immigration. My dream job would have been with the UNHCR, working for Syrian refugees. So in June 2014, I applied for the UN Voluntary programme through their main website to secure an internship for the next month. Yet by October I had not even received as much as a receipt of my application. I was frustrated and had no idea how to get in touch with the UNHCR office to see know the status of my application. I emailed them a few times and the reply they gave me was cursory and standard.

Having volunteered for UNWFP-Colombo (Sri Lanka), I got in touch with my Supervisor and asked him if he had any contacts in UNHCR in Jordan or Lebanon. I was lucky, my Supervisor had a colleague who now worked in UNHCR Amman. My Supervisor put me in touch with him and I asked if he was aware of any voluntary internship programs in Jordan or Lebanon at the UNHCR offices and what would be the best way to apply for them. Luckily he had a small project opening in his office and offered me 2 month voluntary role in the Amman DIST office of UNHCR.

Thus having a contact in Amman helped me rise to the top of the volunteer list at the UN in Geneva. Since thousands of volunteers apply each year to UN, it becomes extremely difficult for an application to even be looked at, let alone to gain internship. Therefore I would advise all students planning to work for the organisation to look for contacts. A lot of lecturers at POLIS have also worked with UN, so talk to them and they might be able to help you secure an internship.

After I received the offer for the internship, it was now time to seriously look for funding. During this time I came across a funding opportunity emailed by POLIS, the Gilbert Murray UN Study Award. It is a UK-based award given to at most 8 UK students (at any level) per annum. The award goes to a maximum of £1000, which is not much but every little helps! However, I had never applied for funding before. And seeing as the award could be granted to anyone at any level of their education, including PhD’s and Master’s students it seemed highly unlikely that I would be able to gain funding from the organisation. But there was no harm in trying! Thus, I emailed Dr. Jorg Wiegratz with whom I had the opportunity of working while I was the Advertising Officer for PIN Students Leeds. He gave me great advice on how to apply for the funding and an excellent reference.

The day I secured my funding, I remember screaming in the SSC computer lab (one of my most embarrassing memories). But I had done it! I was able to secure my dream internship!

Working with UNHCR Amman in Jordan was an incredible experience. I got to visit the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps in the course of my internship and they were eye-openers. Zaatari was like a city in itself, with its own Champs-Elyees. What I saw and perhaps the most important lesson I learned in the course of my internship was that life goes on in the midst of destitution and destruction but it is up to us, the new generation, to minimize not only the destruction but also the destitution that arrives after destruction.

Some important pointers for keen volunteer

  • Build your networks.

This can be done easily, POLIS offers a lot of opportunities for students via talks and lecturers. PIN Students, specializes in building bridges for students between the careers world and the world of university. PIN also organizes various voluntary talks. If you are interested in an organisation and are an employee of that organistaion is giving a talk or working at POLIS, just talk to them about the application procedures and perhaps they might be able to guide you towards the right direction. No advice is ever wasted. I understand that it can be daunting to talk to someone whom you have never met but if we remain shy then our careers may never start

  • No Funding is too difficult to get.

Just apply. Write your proposals in a professional manner. Give it your best shot and hope for the best. Talk to the lectures at POLIS perhaps they might be able to help you with funding.

Yumna M. Usmani completed a B.A. International Development at the University of Leeds. You can contact her at @ymusmani.