APA at the UN: Where Interns Feel Treasured

By Samuel Ouma, MA

Samuel Ouma completed the MA program in Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He now works at a hospital in northern Uganda and lectures part-time at the Institute of Psychology, Makerere University in Kampala.It is over three months now since I finished my internship with the American Psychological Association at the United Nations (APA-UN). In this column I will attempt to share my experience as an intern with the APA-UN team from September 2010 to May 2011. Of course, it will be hard to summarize the wonderful experience I had with the APAUN team in this piece.

As an international student, I had never participated in an interview for an internship position. I was used to just carrying a letter of introduction to the organization of interest, speaking with the head of a department and within minutes I would know if I were accepted or not. The idea of applying for an internship and being shortlisted for an interview at the UN was rather exciting. But what was even more exciting was the interview session itself: five professors, all giving elaborate descriptions of projects they were working on at the UN and in the process, matching my interests to different committees. The experience was very enlightening. At the end of the interview, though I was not sure I would be selected as one of the four interns the APAUN team would select, I was very certain of my need to work with the team. I got a telephone call from Dr. Janet Sigal, the interns’ coordinator, a couple of hours after my interview, offering me the coveted position and I can now reflect on my experience as an intern.

The unique thing about interning with the APA-UN team is that the experience unfolds as individual interns select specific committees to join and work with. These committees are composed of representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and they speak for ordinary citizens of civil society, people like you and me, in the United Nations system. I had the opportunity to work on a number of committees such as the Mental Health Committee and the NGO Committee on the Family. I also had the opportunity to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which each year promotes women’s rights worldwide. I must say, I was initially apprehensive going to some of the committee meetings, but I soon realized it was the whole purpose of the APA team to make psychology relevant to current international issues via participation with representatives of other NGOs in the UN community.

The clarity of the major aim of the team made my role as an intern a worthwhile challenge. For example, I took an interest in the trauma subcommittee of the Mental Health Committee where I helped organize a panel discussion on trauma suffered by refugees. This topic was of great interest to me as a Ugandan who was soon returning to work in northern Uganda, a place infamously known for internally displaced peoples’ (IDPs) camps, filled with people who had suffered untold trauma. But what was even of more significance to me was that a recent study in northern Uganda by my professor and advisor, Helena Verdeli at Teachers College of Columbia University, had found remarkable improvements among traumatized adolescents treated with an adapted psychotherapy (Group Interpersonal Psychotherapy-IPT-G). I felt honored that she accepted my invitation on behalf of the committee to share her findings with the Mental Health Committee.

The other committee that I particularly enjoyed working with was the NGO Committee on the Family. My initial role on this committee was taking minutes during the monthly meetings. I later served on the executive board. I enjoyed the exceptional leadership style of the co-chairs, and my input besides taking minutes during meetings progressively enabled me to become an integral part of the committee leadership. This later earned me an opportunity to co-present during a general committee meeting with Bahira Sherif Trask, Ph.D., Professor and Associate Chair of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Delaware, and author of Globalization and Families.

The theme of our presentation was the effect of globalization on the family and I was asked to focus on the experience of an international student and his family. I thought this was timely as it was at that time I had been reflecting on how having left my wife and daughter back in Uganda in pursuit of further studies in the U.S. was impacting on my experience, my life and my family’s life last year. At the International House in New York City where I lived, I also used this same opportunity to speak with some of my friends about their own family experiences. This was a learning experience for me as I realized how different Asian students’ experiences were compared to students like me who came from Africa. For example, one characteristic that seemed to differentiate us was the differing pressures we experienced given different economic circumstances. Namely, that most of my African friends were sponsored by International scholarships from the Ford Foundation and by Fulbright Fellowships. We had to find ways of saving some money from our stipends to send to our families back home. However, most of the students I spoke with were from countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China; they received funding for their studies from their government, employer, or family. As such, while they were not under any obligation to support their families by way of remitting money to them, they expressed their own pressures, which differed from ours, while they engaged their studies.

Besides the committee meetings and activities, the Department of Public Information (DPI), through weekly briefings, provided an opportunity to learn about what was happening around the world. Various themes of concern to the UN were handled by renowned experts and it was always a pleasure to participate in the briefings. Last year, briefing topics ranged from climate change and social justice to peacekeeping and disaster response.

My intern experiences could never be complete without mention of organizing for the annual “Psychology Day at the UN.” There is no doubt that this is the biggest event organized by the APA-UN team, as monthly planning meetings start as early as September for the April event. Feedback from both organizers and delegates indicated that last year’s event, “Reach Them to Teach Them: The Role of Psychology in Achieving Universal Access to Education” was unique in many aspects. However, one should not be deceived that there were no controversial moments in the planning meetings. Emotions varied and sometimes meetings were very tense, but it was always gratifying to know that this was all for the good of Psychology and Psychology Day. In moments when individual egos reared their ugly heads, psychologists promptly put their ever present skills to use and the situation was soon under control and proceeding productively.

As Psychology Day approached, I personally became apprehensive, not just about how the day would turn out, but how the youth speaker that I had recommended would be received by the delegates. As it turned out, everything went as planned and he did not disappoint. My colleague, Foday Sackor, spoke passionately to the hearts of many delegates and event organizers in his description of life as a refugee in war-torn Liberia. I was glad I had met and known a bit of his life story before this event, that the team had invited him and that he was received so warmly.

With Psychology Day completed, it was clear that our term as interns was coming to an end. Interns were honored to be part of the interview panel for the incoming intern applicants. The selection process was followed with a welcome/farewell dinner for the interns leaving and those entering, hosted by the wonderful APA-UN team. Unfortunately for me, I was among the four interns leaving. What an experience I had with prominent psychologists from the various divisions of APA. Thanks to Dr. Deanna Chitayat and the entire APA-UN team. It was a lifetime opportunity working with you all.