26 Apr The path to global citizenship
The path to global citizenship was once unimaginable for a young girl growing up in regional Western Australia. But building an international career has long-term benefits for our country and region, writes Erin Watson-Lynne.
My father is a merchant navy captain who has worked at sea for over 40 years. He has always given me sage career advice. In 2011, I was finding it difficult to secure my dream international experience – to intern with the United Nations. I remember telling my father about the countless applications and continuous knockbacks I received. He said to me, ‘Erin, when I was transitioning from the Navy to become a Merchant Officer, I sent hundreds of letters before I finally was given an opportunity’.
Aha! My light bulb moment! I decided to send old fashioned letters sent through the post office to New Delhi, Kathmandu and beyond. One of these letters resulted in an internship with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific South and South West Asia Office in India, which set me on a path to global citizenship.
Some people find it surprising that my first international education experience was as a self-organised and self-funded PhD student. Until then, I had always been an adventurer, but generally chose more traditional rites of passage experiences such as living in London and travelling North America. By choosing to go to the UN in New Delhi, every aspect of my career went down a new path, one that I am still travelling today as Head of Programs at Perth USAsia Centre.
What struck me when I was in New Delhi, was the power of stepping right outside my comfort zone. Another thing that often surprises people is the severe culture shock I experienced while adjusting to life in an unfamiliar place. The simple task of leaving my hotel could be crippling, but living in India gave me confidence and I was able to overcome this debilitating response to the unknown.
Learning to live in a new country gave me the ability to adapt to different languages, perceive important cultural nuances, understand how to communicate, how to do business and operate in a country different to Australia.
As I learned to adapt to my new surroundings, India became my new normal. And it was apparent that I was developing skills that would enable me to build a career in international relations and foreign affairs. Learning to live in a new country gave me the ability to adapt to different languages, perceive important cultural nuances, understand how to communicate, how to do business and operate in a country different to Australia. I learned what it took to succeed and get things done, which is often quite a task even in one’s own country of origin! I now feel at home with the unknown, whether it is a new country or a new project that I am working on.
With these skills I have built an international career, with varied experiences that would have been unimaginable when I was growing up in regional Western Australia. For example, in 2015, I was selected to represent Australia at the G20 Youth Summit in Turkey, followed by the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance in China, and the G20 Women Summit in Argentina. In May 2019 I will travel to Japan to again represent Australia at G20 meetings. I started a small consultancy, Generate Worldwide, that provides services and small group programs specifically in India. I spent six years as a research assistant working on projects relating to entrepreneurship and work with a predominantly South Asia lens. I held a lecturing role in a global challenges program at Monash University.
I thought I was on track to become an academic, but was headhunted for a unique opportunity to be Director of Asialink Diplomacy at the University of Melbourne. This was another inflection point in my career, as I moved into the practice of international relations.
In my role as Director, I was responsible for Asialink’s diplomacy strategy, building Australia’s engagement with Asia through dialogues, research and programs. This role enabled me to work with political offices and all levels of government across several portfolios. It enabled me to work with and learn from a variety of organisations, such as sporting clubs, entrepreneurs and start-ups, and the private sector. My time at Asialink took me all over the world, including Southeast Asia, China, South America and North America. It required creativity, perseverance and a willingness to jump on a Skype call at all hours when working across time zones.
While in Argentina and Chile for G20 and APEC meetings in September 2018, I met a group of people and together we decided to create an Australia – Latam Emerging Leaders Dialogue, to strengthen the relationship between the regions. This led me to another light bulb moment, and to gain more traction I contacted one of the Argentinian delegates from G20 Turkey who I’d met during the event. As it happened, she was working for the Foreign Minister in Argentina. It may have taken three years, but this is an example of the power of building meaningful networks. Imagine how much easier international relations could be if the Prime Minister or President of two countries have known each other for 30 years?
I am writing this during my time in Jordan and Lebanon with Save the Children and a group of Australian influencers, funded by the Gates Foundation. We are visiting refugee camps on the border of Syria to experience first-hand the humanitarian crisis. It is these opportunities that you can expect when you build a career in international relations and foreign affairs.
‘International’ is a mindset and not a one off ‘tick-box’ experience in a degree program.
There are three key lessons that I learned throughout the years of building my life and work in this space. I say life, because this is not a job where you can clock in and clock out. This career is about much more than your pay check.
First, ‘international’ is a mindset and not a one off ‘tick-box’ experience in a degree program. Second, people need to leverage the experience and lean into the opportunities that present themselves, no matter how daunting they may be. And thirdly, it is important to build a strong network and maintain those friendships over the years. This is where your work and professional development of opportunities will come from; don’t be afraid of building relationships with people who have a different mindset to you.
In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that the daughter of a sailor has found their way around the world through a career in international relations. Adventure is in our family blood. Combining this deep desire to explore the world with tangible hard skills, it is possible to build an international career that at scale will have long term benefits for our country and region.
Erin Watson-Lynne is Head of Programs at Perth USAsia Centre.